Updated with additional comment from Councilor Yacobellis
Montclair, NJ – Three residents made statements during public comment alleging that Councilor at Large Peter Yacobellis has a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from all votes, discussions and related communications connected to the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment.
Montclair resident David Herron read from a New Jersey Local Government Ethics Law statute and then made this statement.
“It’s abundantly clear that you, Councilman Yacobellis, and your organization Out Montclair, receive monies, donations, financial support from individuals seeking to develop Lackawanna Plaza,” said Herron. “You have a direct conflict of interest. Therefore, you must recuse yourself from all communications concerning Lackawanna Plaza. That would include no emails, no posts, no updates, no speaking to your constituents, no discussion with fellow council members, no lobbying, no meeting with developers or their experts, nada.”
“Finally be advised, a formal complaint has been filed with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office concerning these very serious matters,” Herron added.
Martin Schwartz also spoke of an alleged conflict of interest, calling it troubling.
“Sir, your organization is soliciting monies from Mr. Placek. You’re collecting a salary from that organization. You were already warned on April 5th, 2022 by the township attorney that you had a conflict about the BID budget because monies were going through bid to Out [Montclair]. You abstained that night. You should have recused yourself. He read you the statute at that time. Now you’re seeking monies and getting a direct salary from the organization. You have a conflict of interest.”
At the April 5 meeting, acting Township Attorney Paul Burr said Yacobellis’ abstention to the Montclair Center BID budget vote was as effective as a recusal.
Anson Pope, who, along with Schwartz has been vocal in opposing the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan, addressed Yacobellis during public comment.
“We attempted to meet with you and forestall this. You, under advisement of counsel, chose not to. It’s unfortunate that you’ve been put in this position. I watched the April 2022 meeting where you were involved in the vote to approve the bid budget, and Councilor Cummings did bring it up.
Following public comment, acting Township Attorney Paul Burr explained the statute 40A:9-22 of local government ethics law.
“If an elected official of a municipality is receiving contributions from an entity doing business in Montclair and an ordinance or resolution regarding that entity came to a vote, they should recuse themselves from the vote and from participation with that matter. Failure to do so could result in a grievance filed against them at the Division of Community Affairs,” said Burr. “One of more important impacts could be a resolution or ordinance adopted through their participation could be challenged in a court of law and could be overturned.”
Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings pressed Burr on what steps the council should take.
Burr said that any council member should pay attention and do the ethical thing and recuse themselves, but that any specific discussion should take place during executive session.
Cummings then asked Yacobellis how he felt.
“Number one, I don’t answer to you,” Yacobellis told Cummings. “Number two, at the end of the day, the facts will be presented and everyone can look at the facts.”
Cummings asked for the allegation of conflict of interest to be added to executive session so it could be discussed.
Following executive session, Yacobellis made this statement on the record:
“It’s a lot to have one’s integrity questioned. And I guess that is something that comes with the territory. I don’t blame people for being cynical about government, especially given the last few years. And frankly, it’s why I decided to run in the first place, to be part of the change I wanted to see in the world. I take this job very seriously. I take ethics very seriously. I take conflicts of interest very seriously. And I consistently act with guidance from attorneys on any area that I feel is gray or questionable, to make sure that I’m doing everything, always coloring within the lines. I also think it’s very obvious, when we have a big project that we’re part of and that we’re influencing, it’s a very obvious, potential conflict of interest.
“And that is why, any financial records will show, I received no contributions from Mr. Placek to my political committee ever. And they’re not a supporter of Out Montclair either. Historically, yes, but not at all related to when I’ve had a paid position. Not even close. Out Montclair is an independent corporation and there’s a board of trustees. The organization will be putting out their own statement to clarify on behalf of the board and the organization, their position. I just thought that was important to say on the record.
“It’s really alarming to hear accusations, to have the names of other people that have nothing to do with these situations implicated. And I think it’s really the behavior by some who are frankly just opposed to this project from a political perspective and are politically motivated, to undermine the process and question credibility of individuals like myself. To question the character and integrity of people who work for nonprofit organizations and other professionals and everyday citizens in this town is really shameful and disgraceful. And it actually takes away from the really reasonable arguments that people are making, or how they feel about this project. So I just want to encourage that we elevate this discourse to a place where we’re talking about what’s really happening, what could really happen there, and what the impacts would be and that we just continue to go through this process. None of us have voted for Lackawanna Plaza. We voted to introduce a plan so that it would go through this process. This is not a foregone conclusion and why anybody thinks that it is, is beyond me. It’s really shameful to see some of the politically motivated behavior and I’m certainly not going to tolerate it. And I hope we can all move forward.”
Out Montclair Board of Trustees issued this statement Tuesday in response to claims made at the Montclair Township Council Meeting:
Out Montclair produces events and programming year-round that celebrate and elevate LGBTQIA+ people in and around our town, and we are proud to be joined in this mission by supporters across the entire community — individuals, families, volunteers, advisors, sponsors, vendors, venues, small businesses and Montclair institutions. We are extremely grateful to each and every one of these, who help us meet critical needs in our community and ensure that our programming is accessible to all, including LGBTQIA+ youth, families, and older people.
Our events and programs offer information and resources for LGBTQIA+ people, create and strengthen social connections, and celebrate the diversity, empathy, acceptance, and creative collaborative spirit that Montclair is known for. More than 14,000 people attended Montclair’s first-ever Pride celebration in June 2022 — a community-unifying day of undeniable joy. Events like these are visionary, necessary, and cost money to produce. We rely on the community to help us provide for and celebrate the community, and Montclair Pride 2022 in particular was made possible by the generous support of more than 120 sponsors and vendors.
In light of Out Montclair’s rapid growth, and in order to continue to produce and scale up high-quality programming to reach even more people in Montclair and surrounding towns, the organization’s Board of Trustees unanimously decided to hire Peter Yacobellis as Executive Director in November 2022. Peter previously served as President of Out Montclair on a volunteer basis since its founding in April 2021, and he has been essential to our success as an inclusive and visionary leader, skilled communicator, listener, organizer and doer. We support him fully in his role as our Executive Director.
As legal and financial stewards of Out Montclair, we on the Board of Trustees have always taken legal and ethical compliance matters very seriously. From the start, Out Montclair has maintained and observed a strong conflict of interest policy, and the organization operates scrupulously in accordance with federal and state laws concerning nonprofit organizations.
Out Montclair is committed to the highest ideals of community: diversity, respect for differences, safety, trust, inclusion and belonging. Our organization and leadership are united and steadfast in our mission to improve the lives of every LGBTQIA+ person and family in Montclair and its surrounding areas. All who share these values are welcome to join us, help us and contribute to our community’s success.
In an email following the meeting, Yacobellis sent this comment, refuting other accusations Schwartz made during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting regarding a fundraiser:
Once again former resident Martin Schwartz is lying and misleading the public. At no time has Mr. Alan Horwitz, associated with Lackawanna Plaza, hosted a fundraising event for me. Martin is potentially confusing this with a fundraiser hosted by my dear friend Susan Horowitz (different spelling) and her wife Irina, over a month ago at their home.
What I’ve learned about Mr. Schwartz over the years is he tends to just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and on the rare occasion when something sticks, he uses that luck to claim credibility. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
I believe that the Mayor and Council did the right thing by not keeping Mr. Schwartz on the Planning Board. I also think we did the right thing by not creating an economic development position specifically for him, as he requested. I’m committed to only appointing and hiring honest, qualified, and level-headed people for important positions in our town government.