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.”

23 replies on “Allegations Against Montclair Mayor at Center of Revised CFO Complaint (UPDATED)”

  1. Gee, Frank!

    I always thought of you as our lovable curmudgeon. I think I’ll have to drop the qualifier.

    Sure, let’s punish the victim! New year, same old paradigm.

    Memorize this term: RETALIATION.

    P.S. If your suggestion is for her protection, I will restore the “lovable”.

  2. 1. We need to stream all future Council mtgs just for evidentiary purposes in both current and future litigation. I wish we had remote comment back.

    2. I encourage any half-competent, C-Level HR professional in residence and paying taxes to watch the HR segment of the budget presentation starting at 1:41:25 (or just click More… to see mtg blocks)

    3. I think I will like our new HR Director, although she needs to work on counting HC (447/479/474) & she is likely next in line to be sued by the CFO.

    4. I couldn’t decide which of the HR Director’s statements I enjoyed most:
    a) enlightening the Council they are not employees of the municipal government, b) enlightening the Council they have annual training obligations, c) the the Workplace Culture & Climate contract is not part of her responsibilities or her budget.

    It would take me a chapter or two to explain the implications of all that transpired in that short budget presentation segment. What is very clear to me is the new HR Director needs access to new outside legal Counsel to properly execute her responsibilities and to protect the Township from HR related legal claims.

    It is actually scares me the level of incompetence, ignorance, poor judgement and clear vision I am seeing. Members of the Council don’t assimilate information. It happened once more when the Councilors asked to be interviewed. The Township leadership, both the governing body and the administration are obvious to the train wrecks ahead. I have grave concerns about the legal advice coming from the Law Dept and their dual-role.

    And Pat, seriously? You should actually think about it for 3 minutes before you wonder aloud. She can’t be there for so many reasons that nay one should scare the crap out of you. And now know this – the HR Director is severely limited in protecting any employee from the Council! I could spend all day connecting dots in plain sight. Why don’t you try it?

  3. Frank:

    I stand in awe of Ms. Rao and support her unequivocally. Your support of this despotic, misogynistic hellhole is apparent even through another inscrutable missive.

    Bravo Ms. Rao!!!

    Keep fighting! You’re an inspiration to women and all right-minded people.

  4. “You’re an inspiration to women and all right-minded people.”

    Apparently not the women and right-minded people that defended the Montclair Public Library and joined in very publicly throwing the CFO (her first experience) under the bus. The MPL’s base of support has yet to figure out the same people, same topic, same forgive & forget to the guys… just the guys…by the gals. So don’t preach the N.O.W. stuff to me in this town.

  5. Hello everyone. Longtime reader, first-time poster. I felt compelled to chime in after reading Mr. Rubacky’s comment posted at 7:56 this morning.

    A friend of mine is a former employee of the Township. She is another one who got screamed at by Stafford and left because of him. Unlike Ms. Rao, Ms. Lee, Ms. York, and Ms. Trembulak, she ultimately decided against coming forward. She said she didn’t want to be retraumatized by recollecting fine details of the abuse and she didn’t want her name in the press.

    At first, I thought she should find the courage to make her experience public. Now, after reading Mr. Rubacky’s comment, I can see why female employees may be resistant to come forward. As David Heron stressed in his public comment (October 25 council meeting at 1:29:08), there are many other female employees who reached out to him describing experiences similar to the four women who came forward. Hostile reactions such as the one displayed above by Mr. Rubacky may indeed act as a deterrent.

    I wonder if that is Mr. Rubacky’s objective. Mr. Rubacky: do you perhaps feel Ms. Rao is getting too much positive attention so you try to redirect it towards yourself by whatever means? Interestingly, you had similar reaction to Ms. Birmingham, Ms. Berman, Ms. Padilla, and a few others. Perhaps you should give Mr. Stafford and Mr. Spiller a call and go out for beers with them. I think you would bond instantly with those two leaders in gender bullying.

  6. OMG. “N.O.W . stuff?? N.O.W. stuff! You’re showing your real colors, Frank. Unhinged misogyny.

  7. FR’s reference to the library @12:29PM doesn’t make any sense. As you recall, it was clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that it was the council that held off releasing funds to the library, NOT the CFO. Not surprisingly, the Council tried to blame her. Makes sense, why take responsibility for your deeds when you can find a scapegoat. If the CFO is not watching the meeting, she may never realize she got thrown under the bus by the ‘leadership’. Fortunately, she did find out and the ugly truth came out. As a matter of fact, FR was one of the few that brought this scheme to light here on Baristanet at the time. Does he have amnesia?

    From where I sit, Padmaja Rao is indeed an inspiration both as a finance professional and as a brave, resilient woman.

    FR is confusing in yet another way. Just a few months ago, he claimed the CFO was a hero. Now he is attacking her. Make up your mind, Frank.

  8. ChungAAPI,

    Feel free to address me by Frank. I don’t recall commenting on a Ms Berman or a Ms Padilla. Who are they and in what did I find lacking of them?

    I think you meant to say those listed had a similar reaction to MY comments. I doubt I had a similar reaction each of them. BTW, we all enjoyed Eileen’s reaction. It is a B-net classic.

    My reaction to the CFO amended complaint wasn’t hostile towards her. In fact, it was the opposite of the position I have always held and one always in full support of Ms Rao. I am immensely disappointed in both of you for not truly putting Ms Rao’s well-being first & foremost. I will not speculate why you haven’t.

    My question to both of you is what do you propose to immediately protect Ms Rao from being further subjected to the alleged behaviors, directly or indirectly, in all locations and assemblies, that are fundamental to executing her job for the taxpayers of Montclair? Feel free to add the who’s and how’s with your proposal. I’ll give you to the rest of the day to get back to me.

  9. Scriberman,

    Talk to flipside about borrowing his decoder ring.

    As just a really Sunday Is A Fun Day aside, who was the one active participant in all these noteworthy episodes over the last 2 years? I’ll give you some help. It wan’t any member of the Council. Nor the Manager or Deputy Manager. It wasn’t the anyone from the Law Dept. And, as you noted, it certainly wan’t Ms Rao (unless you count me as her representative). FYI, and that night a few attendees were calling her Maja while they said Mister this, or Mayor this or Councilor this. Their gender didn’t matter to me.

  10. Frank: Oh my, it looks like I missed the window you gave me! What are we gonna do now? Is it too late??

    Anyway, my suggestions are as follows:

    (1) Protect the CFO:

    – Fire Stafford. Don’t pay him a penny more. No need for big fat lawyers to drag it out. Four (4) women came out publicly. I understand that Mayor Spiller wants to protect his faithful ally (who may become ‘leaky’ if cut loose) but his ally has a problem with women and abuses town employees. He has to go.

    – Stop the council from interfering with CFO’s job. We have council-manager charter of Faulkner Act for God’s sake!

    (2) Protect the taxpayers:

    Select ALL vendors through transparent process, not some backroom straw polls. This council continues spending our dollars recklessly for their own political gains. And get them off those goddamn health benefits they were not entitled to. How much does it cost the taxpayer to pay for a family plan for a council person? To quote Deirdre Birmingham, “I wanna know.” In fact, I’m going to file an OPRA request about this sometime this week. If I go to synagogue every day and pray for it, I should get the information sometime in September.

  11. Pat,
    Thank you for your suggestion #1. It is certainly an intuitive one, but there might be a few obstacles to overcome first. I would like to hear ChungAAPI’s proposal before I comment further.

    “Padmaja Rao is indeed an inspiration both as a finance professional and as a brave, resilient woman.” – ChungAAPI

    A succinct complement of the CFO that I couldn’t have stated better.

  12. I second Pat Gottlieb’s recommendations. I would amend his/her recommendation to include firing of the Town Clerk and both Town Attorneys.

  13. You know firing all the Council’s direct reports was my recommendation last Fall? Are you patronizing me?

  14. You do not place the person who the subject of the alleged workplace abuse on paid leave. To say that Ms. Rao should be is contradictory to generally accepted HR principles and practices. You place the alleged offender(s) on paid leave. Standard operating procedure.

  15. I’m a 2nd Ward resident. A few of my neighbors and I started watching council meetings in September of last year. We were all extremely disappointed that our Ward representative, Councilwoman Robin Schlager, voted in favor of the disgraceful Glen Ridge fire agreement. It looked she got played by the town attorney Burr and made believe that she had personal liability.

    At the last council meeting on January 24, Mayor Spiller and attorney Burr indicated that they are bringing Manager Stafford back from paid leave. We are all beyond appalled! Councilwoman Schlager must not make the same mistake twice. She should vote Stafford out and stand up for the values of this town.

  16. Argh.
    You are correct…in many workplaces.

    But, I ask you then what are the generally accepted HR principles & practices when an elected representative allegedly retaliates with the intent to damage a career? This is the significant change in circumstances that was the basis for my demand.

    So you recommend…a someone…place the Mayor on an administrative leave… that doesn’t exist as a legal option?

    And remember what the HR Director said: the Council members are not municipal employees and therefore not under municipal HR oversight. The Acting Manager has no authority as he is a Council direct report.

    So, I ask again. How to protect the employee? At once. Because that is the general principle and practice.

  17. Where is the famed women’s movement in Montclair while all of this is happening right under their noses. We picket and march in the streets of Montclair for women’s rights and issues nationally. But when we have harassment, discrimination and systematic misogyny in our own town, it’s crickets.

  18. We have courts to decide the truth of the allegations against the manager that are set forth in the complaint and I, for one, am prepared to have that play out in court. Debates in this forum, including the participation of anonymous posters are not the appropriate forum for resolving questions that ultimately turn on who said what to who and in what tone of voice. On the other hand I am satisfied that we know enough, actuallyh too much, about the manager’s role in the fire contract debacle. Unless the manager is prepared to say publicly that he argued assertively against approval of the Glen Ridge contract it seems to me there is more than adequate reason for his replacement by someone competent. Residents have a right to a council and key employees that work in their interest. The fire contract was and is insulting to all of us and particularly those public minded residents who blew the whistle early and often and were ignored.

  19. pelberg,

    Wow, absolutely wow. You clearly didn’t follow the GR fire contract debacle. If you had, and based on the facts, Mr Stafford would be 3rd in line to be fired. He was just the enforcer. The Council owns this through and through, Every single one of them. They own the pole position.

    And the bestest part of this whole thing? Really stupendous? Absolutely takes your breath away? The Council and the MFD jokers that put on the charade @ that infamous mtg knew when they were performing about the staff requests, the radios, the new engine. And they all lacked any integrity, zero, to say hey, taxpayers, the bill is coming dues on this and it will be $7MM. Yes, $7MM.
    And when we will send a fully company to a GR fire while the “undermanned” company responds to any concurrent fire…and the mutual assistance isn’t available. Well, the ambulances will be there.

    And they knew that. So, I say to the taxpayers, tough. Life isn’t fair. Get over yourselves and write the checks.

  20. I agree with you pelberg. I would also add that his participation in the creation of the biased fire dept exam showed such poor judgment that it is also cause for removal. but I would also argue that one of the most important aspects of the town manager’s job is to manage town employees. And if his “management style” prevents him from keeping important roles filled (how long did we go without an HR manager? town clerk? director of senior services? etc etc) than he isn’t functioning in his job.

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