Montclair, NJ – Montclair Town Council, shortly after midnight, voted on a resolution to “immediately place Township Manager Timothy Stafford on temporary paid administrative leave, without loss of salary or benefits, pending the conclusion of the independent employment practices investigation concerning the allegations and statements reportedly made by a council member in the previously referenced Montclair Local and Baristanet articles.”
Councilor Peter Yacobellis recused himself from the vote and left the chamber until after it was completed. Councilor Robert Russo was the only councilor to vote no, later explaining that he wanted to have Stafford terminated.
The vote came after a contentious meeting with Montclair residents carrying signs calling for transparency and others calling for Mayor Sean Spiller to resign.
Residents yelled out numerous times during the meeting, sometimes to challenge what was being said by the mayor, sometimes to heckle him, and other times imploring him to be transparent and to fix all that is broken in Montclair. Spiller tried to keep order.
The yelling wasn’t limited to the public portion of the meeting. When the council moved to executive session to discuss the resolution to put Stafford on leave for more than two hours, there was a conflict between Councilor Robert Russo and Councilor Robin Schlager. When the council came down to vote on the resolution, police were present at the back of the room. When the meeting adjourned, police officers asked Councilor Russo if there was an incident tonight and if he wanted to make a statement. He said he didn’t.
“I didn’t do anything but shout at them because they wouldn’t treat me with respect,” Russo said outside in the parking lot. He then pushed past police to go back inside the building, stating that nothing happened and if someone thought something happened, he would apologize.
Councilor Robin Schlager and Councilor Bill Hurlock left to go to the police station to make a statement about an incident during the executive session. Hurlock and Russo also were in a shouting match during the meeting (starting around the 42-minute mark) over a proclamation Russo took from Hurlock at this meeting.
The explosive end to the meeting underscored how dysfunctional this council and government had become, something residents drove home again and again during public comment.
“Bullying and intimidation tactics are not a path toward good government or good living,” said Ann Lippel. “As a member of the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, I had the misfortune of knowing that our town manager’s toxic behavior was a major factor in causing Katie York, [former director of Senior Services], to leave. Katie’s competence and leadership skills were unrivaled in her field, and our seniors have been diminished without her.”
“Mayor Spiller, do you really think anyone believes you had nothing to do with retaliation against our CFO. That you didn’t know about the internal report detailing her harassment? Because she tried to do the right thing and follow proper procedures,” said Martin Schwartz. “The problem is not our Faulkner act of government, the problem is you. Do the right thing and resign.
“Over the last year, we have been subject to a government that is not doing its job,” said Lani Sommer-Padilla. “The people of Montclair have had enough. It is time for an independent investigation into all of this, and the investigator they should not be hired directly and improperly by the mayor.”
“Tim Stafford should have been fired for incompetence a long time ago,” said Deirdre Birmingham, citing the library, the parking deck, the pools, the bridge, the fire promotions exam and the “ridiculous shared services agreement.”
Before public comment the councilors discussed the proposed resolution introduced by Spiller before ultimately moving into executive session. Yacobellis, who had read a statement reacting to the investigation at the meeting’s 13-minute mark, then made a motion to amend the resolution, calling to strike several references to himself.
“This is ridiculous that this investigation is going to be about what I said to the press and not about the lawsuit that Ms. Rao filed against this town,” Yacobellis said to cheers from the crowd.
“If we are going to put him on administrative leave and do an investigation then it must be about Ms. Rao’s complaint about the manager and it must be about the investigation that has already taken place and was conducted by Mr. Morgan into the harassment allegations.”
It was an evening of angry conflict, both what the public witnessed and what transpired during executive session. Just before the meeting adjourned, Yacobellis spoke to those feelings.
“We broke tonight and I think we needed to break. My hope is that from that breakage we can go on a healing journey. I don’t think it gets any worse than this.”