Montclair, NJ – On Tuesday, the Township Council of Montclair passed a resolution to engage Culturupt to conduct a culture and climate assessment. If the name sounds familiar, here’s why.

When Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller announced on October 20 that the Township council planned to place Town Manager Timothy Stafford on administrative leave at its next council meeting due to allegations against Stafford made by the town’s chief financial officer, Spiller, in a statement, said:

In addition, I will propose that we engage with Culturupt, a leading New Jersey based HR consulting firm with expertise in workplace culture and climate, to conduct a culture and climate assessment of our administration. I had previously shared that I would be requesting a full review of our operations by the township administrator, but at this point feel that a culture and climate assessment is a necessary component of this work.

At the tumultuous October 25 Montclair council meeting, Spiller moved the idea of hiring Culturupt as part of a resolution authorizing the review of the Township of Montclair’s organizational structure. None of Spiller’s colleagues seconded the resolution, something Councilor Peter Yacobellis pointed out.

“I think we need the text of the resolution, so we can all have some time to sit with it and actually read it before you ask us to vote on it,” said Yacobellis.

The Council then went into executive session. When they returned to resume the public meeting, they passed a resolution authorizing the review of the Township of Montclair’s organizational structure but with the language changed to read that Council would “engage with an entity to be reviewed and determined to conduct a climate and culture survey.”

Culturupt, founded by Ritu Pancholy, a South Orange-based attorney who recently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the South Orange-Maplewood BOE, counts Governor Phil Murphy as a client.

Ritu Pancholy, Culturupt founder.

Murphy’s campaign hired the firm Culturupt in January 2021 to implement a program to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace culture among the staff. That includes mandatory sexual harassment training, a code of conduct, and a system to investigate and resolve issues.

At the tail end of Tuesday night’s council meeting, Spiller reintroduced the idea of Culturupt, adding he had spoke with individuals on the council separately about it.

“We had moved, probably two months ago now, a culture and climate assessment. We left it open ended for a time for people to look at any entities that could potentially do that,” said Spiller, adding that no one had come forward with any other options.

He then moved that the Council bring in Culturupt to do the climate and culture survey.

Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings questioned whether the firm would be monitoring the current environment in the Township government.

“I want to be very clear, out of my respect for the deputy manager and my friendship with him for a long time, that this is not based on since you have been in charge, but the previous administration when you were Deputy Manager,” said Cummings, speaking about Acting Town Manager Brian Scantlebury.

When it came time to vote, the Council passed the resolution authorizing Culturupt for a culture and climate assessment with Cummings voting no and Councilor Robert Russo abstaining.

There was no mention of this resolution on the agenda for the public to see or speak to during public comment, nor was there a contract amount or certification of funds.

“We have a tendency to rush when it comes to voting on certain contractors and firms,” said Cummings on Thursday of his “no” vote on Culturupt. “The rational for hiring this group is based on the internal climate of Mr. Stafford who is currently not serving in that capacity. I don’t believe it is necessary at this point in time.”

“Most of what we are spending time and money on is not working,” said Councilor Robert Russo Thursday, regarding his abstaining from the Culturupt vote. “There needs to be an outside, independent audit and review of our government structure. As I have said before, a study of the form of government leading to a possible referendum to change from a strong manager to a stronger, more accountable Council, with staggered terms, is what I have advocated for years. The Manager system we have now leads to abuse and a culture of power and czar-like behavior so many have experienced and complained of this past year, including me.”


No Go For O’Toole Scrivo

While the Council voted yes to Culturupt, a resolution to confirm and ratify a non-fair and open professional services contract between the Township of Montclair and O’Toole Scrivo LLC and authorize payment in the amount of $39,386.00 for independent employment practices, failed when it came before a vote.

In the complaint filed by Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao against the Township of Montclair and Township Manager Timothy Stafford, Rao alleged that Montclair engaged the O’Toole Scrivo law firm, for the purpose of conducting an investigation into a claim of racial discrimination in the preparation and administration of the 2021 Montclair Fire Department promotional exam, but did not do so through a fair and open procurement process, as generally required under New Jersey Local Public Contracts Law.

According to the complaint, the Township did not pass a resolution for the contract, did not request or obtain a certification of funds for the contract from the CFO, and the contract did not include a maximum dollar amount.

During Tuesday’s public comment, Montclair resident Lauren Berman called for the Council to oppose ratification of the O’Toole Scrivo resolution.

“Myself and others have submitted OPRA requests, which have illegally gone unanswered for two months regarding the selection process of the O’Toole Scrivo Law firm,” said Berman. “Tonight you’ll decide if we pay for these findings, which are being withheld from the public.

“So what do we know about the selection of the O’Toole Scrivo law firm? Well, we know the Montclair CFO Rao alleged in her lawsuit that she was being pressured to sign off on the payments, but refused to do so because the proper lawful bidding process was not followed. We know that Kevin O’Toole, Chief Herrmann and Tim Stafford are all prominent members of the Cedar Grove community and that O’Toole and Herrmann are involved in the same Irish American and political fraternal organizations. And that Chief Herrmann works frequently with the Cedar Grove Volunteer Fire Department, of which Kevin O’Toole is a member. We know the law firm was not selected through a fair and open bidding process. We know that state law required a council resolution to hire the firm for a billing threshold anticipated to be as high as this one, and we know that tonight’s resolution does not contain a certification of funds,” said Berman,

Later in the meeting, when Spiller moved the O’Toole Scrivo resolution, Councilor Robin Schlager asked a question.

“Can somebody please explain to me, because I don’t remember, what a non-fair and open professional services contract is?”

“That’s when a contract is not offered out to a public bid,” said acting town attorney Paul Burr. “In certain circumstances, when contracts need a certain bid threshold or go over a certain threshold, they have to go out for public bid. This is not the situation. Most of the time, we don’t put things out to public,” said Burr, then correcting himself. “I shouldn’t say most of the time. There are occasions where contracts don’t go out to public bid.”

“Are you saying most of the time it does?” Cummings questioned.

“No, no. I’m saying on occasion or, there are occasions when it doesn’t and there are occasions when it does. I don’t know. I can’t speculate as to the percentages of times when it does,” Burr added.

“I just want to be on record that I was uncomfortable with this hire,” said Cummings. “I thought that it could have been done better, and the result I think, speaks for itself.

“We do not know the results of any actions prior and let the record note, we don’t pay for a result we would want. So we just wan to be clear, for that specifically,” said Spiller.

When the clerk called the roll, Mayor Spiller and Councilor Abrams voted yes. Councilor Cummings and Yacobellis voted no. Councilors Hurlock, Schlager and Russo all abstained.

Regarding the Scrivo vote, Russo explained his abstention.

“The town attorney and manager need to be a team of watchdogs making sure we do not violate procedures and regulations,” said Russo. “I keep voting no or abstaining when I’m not comfortable with these decisions or resolutions. I see my voice as one of long experience and advocacy for good, open, transparent government.”

“I voted no because I have questions around the process of formally onboarding them as a vendor and how their scope was set,” said Councilor Yacobellis. “I hope to get those answered in January. I think ultimately we do have to pay them for the work they’ve done, even if we have some clear lessons for how to approach situations like this in the future.”

Baristanet has asked several town officials, including the acting town attorney and the Mayor, which category under local public contracts law was the Culturupt contract awarded? We will update if we receive a reply.



Thank you for being a loyal reader. Here’s one important way in which you can show your commitment to local, independent journalism. Please become a Baristanet member at the level of your choice. Every dollar is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

20 replies on “Montclair Council Moves Forward On Culturupt; O’Toole Scrivo Resolution Fails”

  1. This Council is just flat out incompetent.

    The Acting Manager would have told you, as he did at the end of the meeting, that he hoped to have the Director of HR position filled starting January. The Culturupt decision was not an emergency. Why not wait until you have in-house HR expertise to decide on this contract?

    Seriously, this is some really stupid stuff. I am beyond embarrassed for the Council members that voted for this. Except the Mayor. He knew exactly what he was doing moving this contract approved now. And now he gets an appointment to the Governor’s whatever task force.

    I’m also embarrassed for Montclair Democrats. You have allowed your standards to erode for some time now. And yet you allow your party to go lower. Who is your local leader? Do you have one? Do you need one?

  2. The most sobering comments of Tuesday’s Council mtg…starting @ 2:00:30. Ring out the old year and bring in the new!

    Thank you Councilor Hurlock for the verbalizing what many (& many local attorneys) already knew.

  3. This proposed contract is just embarrassing. As I have written here, the fire department debacle was the elucidating and breaking point for me. Everything I have seen and read since makes it worse. We have a serious management and competence problem which the Mayor has attempted to cover up with his gift for woke language as if words were an adequate substitute for management, oversight and transparency. Now we are going to have a cultural evaluation by what appears to be a politically connected outfit. Are they going to evaluate the quality of management, oversight and transparency. I expect not. I expect they are going to evaluate the adequacy of the attention to “wokeness”. That is not what we need. Basic management, consistent with the law is. This appears to be just more form and process over substance.

  4. It is also time to bring new leadership of the Council’s Civil Rights Commission. This holiday season is also a good time for current members to reflect over what has happened under their watch, what role they had in making Montclair a more equitable place, and maybe time to move on to seek out new challenges. Thank you all for your service.

  5. How surprising is it the Council would select a politically connected firm, Culturupt, to do a “Culture and Climate” evaluation? How funny that on seeing the name it reads like ‘corrupt?’ And since Pelberg smartly brought it up, why the BS language? Someone please tell me the difference between a Workplace Culture and a Workplace Climate? When you lead with jargon, what kind of character lies beneath? I don’t know…let’s do a deep dive and then synchronize the verticals.

    Cheap. Sketchy. Culture and Climate.

    Cheapened language should be offensive to smart people. People asking top dollar for “services” such as evaluating “workplace Culture and Climate” should be harshly evaluated themselves. Am I overdoing it? I’d think the educated people of our town would be on to this garbage by now. Spiller is naturally drawn to people who hide behind baloney jargon — he’s an epic procurer himself (note the root of procurer) — but are we?

    “Due Diligence” is sometimes employed by the jargon-inclined, but it applies here; it’s the bloody job of the Council. What goes on in those Executive Sessions? Was any Due Diligence done in selecting Culturupt? Of course not. How does an HR firm (among hundreds in this state) get selected, with obvious political ties to the Murphy machine, who is term-limited of course, and was recommended by Spiller? Perhaps Councilor Cummings is the one to ask, being the only sensible no vote. Does Culturupt have ties to NJEA? Are they clients? How much did Murphy pay them? Is their client list heavily weighted to state political ops? Spiller is so obviously nibbling on the edges of the Murphy machine, working all the angles, ingratiating himself to all the players in all the layers of the state bureaucracy, the Murphy campaign operatives (all looking right now to sign on to a potential campaign, beginning with the exploratory committee Spiller has to put together within the next few months as Sweeney, Fulop, Baraka et al. are already in or getting in). And the really brilliant thing is he gets us, the Montclair punching-bag taxpayers, to pay for it! I mean, it’s just inspired. And to pull it off right before Christmas when no one is paying attention? The man has got what it takes.

    I do note one positive in what Culturupt brings to the table. The VP of Content (one might expect Curator of Content with this group, but they haven’t yet taken the Advanced Jargon Dynamics Webinar) has extensive experience working with children and adolescents and strives to “create an opportunity for clarity, relief and development. She believes therapy can help us slow down and be in the moment and embodied (sic) in our feelings in ways that bring clarity to our own patterns and to our own potential.”

    Sounds perfect for us.

  6. “Oh, intercourse the penguin!” …ooops, I keep mixing up Monty Python’s Flying Circus with the current events in Montclair. Honest mistake….

  7. Hopefully the Council will reach out for expert fair housing advice, beyond the limited, small town capabilities of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission and the NAACP Housing Committee, before approving the Lackawanna Plaza Zoning Plan.

    Maybe Mr Placek’s attorney will intercede. I understand she is well regarded.

    As another aside, those who took my ‘shall’ keyword search advice (excluding the above-named advisory bodies), may want to do a keyword search on ‘but’ in the draft Zoning Plan.

  8. Has anyone made a connection between Murphy’s campaign hiring of Culturupt in 2021 in the wake of sexual harassment scandal? Two lawsuits were filed, if I remember correctly. One by Katie Brennan and one by Julie Roginsky. Star Ledger reported on it extensively. Now we have lawsuits in Montclair and Culturupt is hired again.

    It must be a coincidence.

  9. Moving on, the most lucrative Redevelopment project Montclair has right now is The Siena, 7 stories on 1.3 acres of SPark, bringing in $1.25MM annually. As many might have heard, Lackawanna is far, far bigger @ 8 ¼ acres. Bigger than any Redevelopment project previously and for the foreseeable future.

    LP’s East Parcel alone could bring in about $4.75MM annually. The West Parcel, the train station parcel about $3.25MM annually. Together, $8MM annually, over 30 years.

    The Township’s total combined 2021 PILOT revenue, including Centro Verde, Seymour, & 11 other projects was $4.25MM.

    [FYI, the win-win Glen Ridge fire contract is more profitable. While it will bring in, on average, only $1.25MM annually, the Council spent next to no time & resources on it.]

    Now, hold on. We have to do the deductions. Historic landmarks, 20% Affordable Housing, and a Bike Lane Demonstration Project are No Charge items. The Open Space (even if it doubles as a parking lot), Workforce Housing (Montclair residents only), 100% On Site Stormwater Recharge , Traffic Lights, and misc. reduce our net take to about $4.3MM* annually.

    *The deductions were calculated using FEMA’s standard rates for redevelopment after a disaster.

    So, like the GR fire contract, the important thing is to focus on the realized income itself. Not a bunch of woulda’s, coulda’s income streams.

  10. That’s right, e. dellisanti. Culturupt was brought in back then, too. Nice hat tip. Odd how this is playing out. What, exactly, is Culturupt being brought in to fix? Or script? Or present for the eventual media scrutiny that will come with Spiller’s running for higher office. Which We will pay for.

    A theory: You’re not a real player in NJ politics unless you’ve got the damage control bona fides to show the party bosses you can weather the inevitable and ugly Garden State storm. You don’t have to be a felon, but you can’t look like a sissy either. Spiller should be facing a storm right now but his little sandlot in Montclair is so friendly, or indifferent, he has to hire the consultants at least to look the part of seasoned (corrupt) pol, rather than just to hide his outlandish incompetence (which perhaps, a very slim perhaps, is not his entire character, but when ambition is all-consuming competence goes out the window). And because Culturupt has intimate knowledge and experience of NJ politics, not just the workings of state government, and especially to curry favor with Murphy’s team, Spiller can hire no one but Culturupt, even when it looks so patently stupid. And to prove to the bosses he has the cajones he can pull off such a stunt.

    And here’s something else: this whole concept of bringing in outside help: It’s a big If. A big if that an HR firm is really even needed at all. Who says some outside firm is going to fix our government? Does that kind of consultancy intervention ever really work? Boatloads of tax dollars go to such gimmicky ‘solutions’ all the time, and we accept it without question. Like teachers’ conventions and seances. Hard to justify with a straight face. Go look at the jargon BS on Culturupt’s website, as I pointed out before, and say with a straight face they’re going to fix a bunch of personalities on staff who don’t like or trust each other, or have the human capacity to change. Or do their jobs better, even with an adult working lifetime of never having aspired to such a thing. Anyone ever think about that? Anyone ever stand in line at the Building Department and wonder if some of those job performances can be fixed? Maybe someone should factor in that concept, eh? You don’t always need a plumber to fix the sink. (Yeah, I know. Weak. I made that one up.)

    Just a theory. Maybe it’s more of a sitcom script. But why hire Culturupt, especially when they just call attention to what a clod Spiller’s been as mayor? They say they’re an HR Firm, but seem to align more with PR and damage control. They have a track record of being brought in to clean things up. The HR stuff seems more like window dressing. And puhlease…Murphy hired them?

    Has process even been discussed? Has the town attorney approved? Is Spiller skating by on some tiny technicality to squeeze Culturupt into his poorly thought out schemes? Was an RFP issued? Is there a threshold where other firms have to be identified and vetted? Frank R would know this, I’m sure.

    -And please disclose what we’re paying them.
    -Per hour?
    -Number of hours?
    -Term of contract?
    -Nondisclosure Agreements? If they include that, the whole thing really, really stinks.
    -How many MTC staff will be subjected to investigation?
    -Name of MTC Staff contact?

    And please, please, demand that Culturupt’s complete client list be made publicly available. If they hide behind some non-disclosure or client privacy or client privilege scheme they have no place being hired by us.

    Sean Spiller has no right to impose his political ambitions on the good people of Montclair. If the good people of Montclair don’t care, well then I’m misreading the character of all these folks for whom Ralph Nader and Common Cause were once such icons of decency and progressive politics. Draw the line somewhere, people. Or maybe it really was all just talk and faux-outrage.

    An aside: I remember when Julie Roginsky, who had played the role of token liberal for Fox News, sued the place for sexual harassment. Friends of mine who had never worked there said the Satan Channel obviously had it coming. Earlier, when the same Roginsky broke her gag order and spilled her guts about the sexual harassment and toxic misogyny of the Murphy campaign, the refrain that seemed to have been issued as a talking point was, ‘it’s not anything like Harvey Weinstein.’ So there.

  11. I am fascinated with the focus on the Mayor. Yes, Mayor Spiller is deserving of an endless stream of criticism. He is that bad. However, there are 6 other votes on the Council. Three of which have been serving on the Council for over a decade. These is Other Voters take turns creating the agenda and the majority that drive the bad governance we are experiencing; month in, month out. I know sh*t about Trenton politics and frankly, gave up caring a long time ago. There is a reason why NJ & RI rank as the two most corrupt states among the 50 – beating out Louisiana!
    And I am endlessly amused by transplanted New Yorkers who knew full well how corrupt we are, but moved here anyway…and find the corruption off-putting. Seriously? You missed the good ol’ days when your train ride through the Meadowlands might included spotting a body in the mercury-laced tidal basin.

  12. Amidst the snark and the clever retorts the fundamental point gets missed. The problem is one of management and supervision of employees. Neither the former manager or the Mayor appear to have any such skills. Our last Mayor clearly did having such skills having worked as a senior employee at a major regional business. All the attention here on wokeness, the Mayor’s political ambition and his lack of understanding and concern about what his job actually is and who he works for just highlights the management problem and makes it worse. We just need a manager that knows their job is to make “the trains run on time” and follow the law. The “culture” will follow suit. We haven’t had that. As for the other members of the Council I don’t know enough about them or their backgrounds to know if they have any relevant supervisory experience or even the ability to know what good management looks like.

  13. And this doesn’t count as corruption, but Montclairions are feeling real good about the $2MM funding our Congressperson facilitated to reactivate a polluted well, with a well capacity we only need on paper – to facilitate more development. Well, ok, maybe our primary water supply may be at some risk thanks to Ford, the car company.

    Yes, we have $2MM to spend on a well project that should cost half as much, plus the usual 18% cost overruns, because we did a similar project several years back.

    If you remember Tareyton cigarettes, you might sense a feeling of deja vu. Our project will use activated carbon filters, like Tareyton in its cigarette filters, to extract the Forever Chemical pollutants from the Rand well.

    Rand well is on our Second River Forever Chemicals route that includes our other two wells and Edgemont Park – with its very expensive pedestrian bridge. Again, like Tareyton’s famous tag line, “I’d rather fight than switch”, we will try to reclaim a Forever Chemical tainted water supply instead of investing in a new well off the Forever Chemical beaten path.

    This is not corruption. It is another reason why NJ is one very expensive place to live.

  14. F. Rubacky:

    My guess is that the focus is on the Mayor because he appears actively malevolent. The other ones on the council seem indolent/dependent/passive.

  15. There is certainly room for multiple reasons, but your guess wouldn’t be on my list.

    Cummings & Yacobellis (not the personal injury firm) should never be mistaken by an informed electorate as passive people. Hurlock & Schlager have served in Council roles for 10 years. They may be closet introverts which may explain their passive-aggressiveness tendencies. However, they have present a highly polished their mirror of their base. Russo has 40 years in, off and on, and I would not mistake his ‘been here/done that – 20x over’, to what you describe. Do you know how many cohorts & generations have moved away, but can say they knew of him? OK, his stories and non-sequiturs are hard on our concentration. Councilor Price Abrams is offering a master class in time mgmt discipline in not exceeding her her part-time role…which aligns well to her narrow range of interests.

    The squeaky wheels get all the attention, but most of The Other Six are enjoying the pass they worked so hard to create.

  16. Frank, Yup, our star congresswoman/congressperson gets a big pat on the back for securing 2mm for a poisoned well. Not quite as good as the 3mm the NIH received to study hamsters on steroids duking it out but it is something. Before she dislocates her shoulder I hope she points out that she voted for all the ridiculous government spending that caused runaway inflation. Inflation? Pshaw, that only effects the little people not my donors. Seven dollars for a loaf a bread? Deal with it. High energy costs? Wear two sweaters. Bundle up and ride your bike. Doesn’t anyone realize how much money there is to made building bombs? I stand with Ukraine!….until the last Ukrainian bite the dust. Then my donors will make a ton rebuilding the place. Enjoy your poisoned water Montclair! I’m from the government and I am here to help!

  17. It makes total sense to me to pump Forever Chemical up from the aquifer to the surface to process, then chlorinate (that happens to be smack dab in the campus of 14 year olds) and we will likely sell at a premium to Glen Ridge (to recoup our fire contract losses) so they can do their own redevelopment.

  18. Question to the older and wiser than me: why does it cost a shitload of money to run for office? Does anyone have a breakdown handy of what it was, say, 50 years ago and what it is now? If the ability to raise money is the chief criterion for who can be a contender, that is the answer to the question why we end up with people in leadership who don’t belong in leadership. There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, btw (I’m not exactly poor myself), but if I’m going to be running for a position in government, my wealth should NOT be the chief factor! Or, if there’s absolutely no way to run for anything without costly TV adds, wealth should be be “in addition to” the frigging requisite skillset, not the SOLE criterion! A dude like Sean Spiller has nothing but money. And it’s not even his. It’s automatically taken from teachers’ salaries. So it’s someone else’s money combined with no credibility, no substance, no record of effective governance. And yet he is said to be a contender in the gubernatorial run. Isn’t this surreal? Flipside is right to be invoking Monty Python. Things in Montclair are getting more surreal by the day.

    F. Rubacky: I kinda agree with your take on the council. I agree that Russo is off the rails sometimes but he seems genuine and I think he actually means well. I had to laugh at the “Yacobellis & Spiller not-a-law-firm comment”, lol! Still and all, pathetic as they are, none of them seems as actively malevolent as Spiller. We can continue the conversation later. Right now I’m distracted as I’m about to try a ball gown for New Year’s!

Comments are closed.