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.
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.
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