UPDATE: See below comment from Councilor David Cummings
Montclair, NJ – A new revised complaint by Montclair’s chief financial officer focuses on Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller’s role in allegations of whistleblower retaliation.
In October 2022, Montclair’s Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao filed a complaint against the Township of Montclair and Township Manager Timothy Stafford citing harassment and whistleblower retaliation in October 2022. On Tuesday, Rao, through her attorney Roosevelt N. Nesmith, filed a motion to amend her complaint, adding allegations of Montclair Township’s, and specifically Mayor Spiller’s retaliation, against Rao that took place after the filing of her original complaint on October 17, as well as retaliatory conduct which occurred shortly before the filing of her complaint but only became known to her after its filing. The revised complaint also adds a claim for Defendants’ retaliation in violation of the Law Against Discrimination.
Montclair filed a motion to dismiss Rao’s original complaint on November 23, 2022. Stafford filed a motion to dismiss Rao’s complaint on December 9, 2022. Both motions are still pending before the Court.
Spiller Investigation Allegations
The Montclair council’s first meeting after Rao filed her complaint was October 25, 2022. As alleged in the proposed amended complaint, in the course of that meeting it was revealed that Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller had allegedly initiated his own investigation into Rao to obtain damaging information on her job performance. These allegations were also reported on October 19, where Councilor Peter Yacobellis stated that “on several occasions, including after the most recent Council Meeting, the Mayor approached him and his colleagues to discuss building a file of examples that could be used to pursue disciplinary action against Ms. Rao.” Councilor Yacobellis, at the October 25 meeting, again states that Mayor Spiller had asked Yacobellis and other Montclair councilors to provide him with damaging information on Rao’s job performance and conduct. Councilor Yacobellis stated the mayor had most recently requested such information about Rao at the prior council meeting, September 28, 2022. He further stated that when making the requests, Mayor Spiller did not disclose the existence of the Montclair Affirmative Action Officer’s report on the complaint Rao had filed with his office, which had concluded that Stafford had created a hostile work environment for Rao. Yacobellis inferred that Spiller’s request for information was connected to Rao’s complaint to the Affirmative Action Officer.
According to the revised complaint, that same day, September 28, 2022, the Montclair law department formally rejected the findings of the Montclair’s Affirmative Action Officer’s report. Rao had filed the complaint with Affirmative Action Officer Bruce Morgan on May 3, 2022. Rao provided him with examples of what she described as an escalating series of instances in which Stafford’s behavior was aggressive and threatening to her, which included arguments and derogatory remarks. She reported to Mr. Morgan that the progressively aggressive behavior made her fearful of her current work environment and fearful of facing or communicating with Stafford. The Affirmative Action Officer completed his investigation and issued a report finding that Stafford created a hostile work environment for Rao on August 29, 2022.
As reported on October 24, 2022, Baristanet asked Montclair Mayor whether he was provided with the report by interim attorney Paul Burr.
“I have never received nor seen said report, however it is improper for any member of the Council, including myself, to comment on personnel matters and ongoing litigation,” said Spiller.
The proposed amended complaint also alleges that Mayor Spiller engaged in additional retaliatory conduct against Rao by making false and misleading statements on the public record intending to harm Rao’s professional reputation. It alleges that at a Montclair council meeting on December 20, 2022, Mayor Spiller asserted that Rao had violated ethical guidelines by participating in discussions with the Montclair property and casualty insurance broker and its outside financial consultant, which resulted in the broker and financial consultant recommending Montclair change its insurance carrier—which would have substantially reduced Montclair’s insurance premium and policy deductibles — a savings of roughly $85,000. Rao alleges that after repeatedly being informed that the recommendation to change insurance carriers came from the broker and financial consultant, Mayor Spiller falsely stated on the record that the recommendation had come from Rao, that she had a lawsuit against the present insurance carrier, and that she should not have participated in discussions concerning the insurance. Mayor Spiller knew Rao’s lawsuit was against Montclair and Stafford, not the insurance carrier; knew the recommendation to change insurers had come from Montclair’s insurance broker and financial consultant, and therefore knew Rao had no conflict of interest. Rao alleges Mayor Spiller’s defamatory statements were made solely to cause harm to Rao’s reputation and diminish confidence in her ability to perform her job as Chief Financial Officer in retaliation for her October complaint.
By putting these allegations into a revised complaint, they are now part of the public record. If the motion to amend the complaint and include these additional allegations is approved, it will supersede Rao’s October complaint.
“I am, and have been, fully supportive of ensuring any issue or complaint is heard and that we take appropriate steps to address – such as bringing in a team of experts to address culture and climate. Regarding being mentioned, I must also still do my job in ensuring the township is current on its bills and asking appropriate questions, including noting that I do not think anyone involved in litigation against the township should be part of meetings pertaining to the litigation,” said Spiller.
Following Rao’s October complaint, more stories of abuse and retaliation at Montclair’s town hall were reported. On October 28, Juliet Lee, the former Montclair Township deputy clerk, filed a complaint against the Township of Montclair and Town Manager Timothy Stafford, citing gender and age discrimination as well as a hostile work environment. The complaint mentions incidences where the town manager allegedly verbally abused Lee in front of employees from different township departments as well as the deputy town manager and township attorney.
In December, two more former Montclair Township employees, Celia Trembulak and Katie York, in sworn statements, accused Stafford of creating a hostile work environment. Trembulak, in her statement, said she never witnessed Stafford treat men in the verbally abusive manner she experienced and that she saw directed to Sue Portuese, who was the Township Health Officer. York, the former director of senior services for the Township, also reported to Portuese. She details numerous instances where Stafford was allegedly punitive, demeaning and hostile to York.
At the January 24 Town Council meeting, both Montclair acting attorney Paul Burr and Spiller appeared to expect Stafford to return to his position.
Burr, in discussing the budget for the manager’s office and how a stipend promised to Acting Town Manager Brian Scantlebury by then-Town Manager Stafford, for additional duties associated with the rent control office, could be approved, said that the council could put forth a resolution or “upon the return of the manager he would authorize that stipend.”
Spiller responded to Burr, saying that the manager [Stafford] would authorize it, but the council would still have to approve it.
Comment from Councilor David Cummings: “After being informed of the most recent article in Baristanet regarding the CFO’s revised complaint, I feel compelled to set the record straight. Councilor Yacobellis’s characterization that the Mayor approached him and other councilors to discuss building a file of examples that could be used to pursue disciplinary action against Ms. Rao did not include me, or Councilor Russo. What I do recall vividly is, that night, the Mayor approached Councilor Price Abrams and Yacobellis and spoke to them for several minutes. He then spoke to Deputy Mayor Hurlock and Councilor Schlager for a few minutes. I was not privy to what was said. But it became obvious to me a few days later when I got a text from a reporter asking if the Mayor had informed councilors that the Township was unhappy with Rao’s performance and the town was essentially creating a file on Roa that would include insubordination and failure on the job.”
“The Mayor never approached me. I will say in the time I have worked with Ms. Rao on the Finance Committee she has always put the Township’s fiscal standing first.”
“Troubling to me is after reading this recent article, it affirms my original belief that one of the Council members leaked what happened that night to the press. After receiving that text inquiry from a local reporter asking me to confirm his description, I called every Council member and asked them if the reporter reached out to them, too. The mayor’s conversations with Councilor Yacobellis, Price Abrams, and then Hurlock and Schlager, took place after an Executive Session. The only people in the room were Council members. Every council member except Yacobellis told me they received an inquiry from the reporter. As someone with 30 years experience as a journalist, that leads me to believe the only reason the reporter did not contact Yacobellis is because Yacobellis was the source of the information.”