Montclair, NJ – Montclair Councilor Bob Russo dropped the big news at the last Montclair Township council meeting regarding Montclair’s town manager Timothy Stafford. Stafford was put on administrative leave in October following reports of a complaint filed by Montclair Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao against the Township of Montclair and Stafford. In February, the council adopted a preliminary resolution to remove him pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-93.
On March 27, Russo said, regarding Stafford, “the guy is stalling, prolonging and trying to beat us over the head for money.”
Now we know just how much money.
According to a report in the Montclair Local and confirmed to Baristanet by an anonymous source, Stafford is asking Montclair for $1.2 million to walk away. Or, Montclair can pay him $500,000 and reinstate him.
At that same meeting last week, before Russo revealed other details about a back and forth with Stafford (Russo said “the man wanted a hearing, then he didn’t want a hearing, then he wanted a hearing again, then we postponed it two weeks.”), acting town attorney Paul Burr said he could not comment on the status of the town manager’s employment because there was “litigation, actually pre-litigation on a personnel matter.”
Later in that meeting, after Russo made his statement, Burr reiterated the importance of following the repeated legal advice to Council, given by both Burr and assistant township attorney Gina DeVito, about not disclosing information on any pending legal matters or personnel issues.
“Be mindful that statements made in public could waive indemnification of yourselves in the capacity that you are acting as elected officials and subject you to some liability issues,” said Burr.
A Council and Its Conflict
This Town Council has had its share of explosive meetings, conflict and strife (including a meeting where police were called), and much has been related to the town manager and his removal.
When asked for comment regarding news that four members of the Council anonymously shared information disclosed in executive session regarding Stafford’s demand for $ 1.2 million, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilor Robin Schlager both said they could not comment on pending litigation, something Hurlock had also said during the last meeting when asked about the town manager’s status by a resident during public comment. Hurlock had officiated at that meeting in Mayor Sean Spiller’s absence.
A million dollars is not a lot of money when it comes to holding the world for ransom, but it would be a lot for Montclair to have to pay, especially if there was an issue with the Township’s insurance.
Spiller, when asked for comment about the information that was disclosed, expressed concern Wednesday.
“Like all towns, Montclair carries insurance to protect the interests of the town and to protect our residents from unanticipated costs. Much as residents are familiar with their own insurance coverages like home and auto, standard practice is that the insurance company handles discussions, assessments, negotiations, and all matters in cases where they are the covering party. The alternative is a situation where we waive coverage and the township would have to pay and handle issues without the safety net of the insurer.
Furthermore, any discussion of or interference in their work could result in loss of coverage. As such, I have no comment on any discussions between the insurance company and the parties involved in litigation.
As a resident, I understand the desire to discuss all aspects of their work at all times. However, as elected representatives, all members of the governing body have an obligation to the confidentiality of the process and should adhere to advice from legal counsel in order to protect all of us as taxpayers.”
Executive Sessions and Confidentiality
According to Montclair Local, the four councilors asked for anonymity, citing the confidential nature of information learned in executive sessions.
Councilor David Cummings said the disclosure was a serious matter and and potentially could end up hurting the Township.
“It’s been a problem for some time. I don’t know why they just don’t give their names. It’s clear some members of this Council don’t care about violating Executive Session,” said Cummings.
Former Montclair township attorney Ira Karasick, echoing Burr’s statements, said the disclosure was not only wholly improper but could be damaging to the Township.
Karasick said he was astonished by an anonymous disclosure of this gravity — something he hadn’t seen in his 11 years with the Township — as well as the fact that the Township invited discussion of a settlement at all.
“To favor settlement over litigating, you have to feel like there’s vulnerability on both sides,” Karasick said. He also speculated whether the councilors who disclosed the information did so as a way to undermine or forestall a settlement.
“There are obviously many, many more layers to be peeled back on this,” said longtime former Montclair councilor Dr. Renee Baskerville, adding she couldn’t imagine why the Township would be negotiating with Stafford at all.
“He is an at-will employee, they don’t owe him an explanation. Is he holding onto something that they need from him?” she added.
Baskerville said the anonymous disclosure of confidential information by councilors was very unusual and seemed to her to be politically motivated.
“I can’t see putting your integrity in question,” she said of the disclosure.
In their February resolution, the Council “determined it is in the best interest of the Township to go in a different management direction.”
The Council’s resolution ending his paid leave stated that an investigation “did not find sufficient evidence to sustain a claim that Mr. Stafford’s conduct created an abusive or hostile work culture for female employees in the township.”
Councilor Peter Yacobellis had this to say.
“The fact that we’re here today is very frustrating. I think most people know I had a different course of action that I wanted us to pursue with respect to how at-will employment is defined. But here we are. He is entitled to ask for whatever he wants. Ultimately, much of this is going to be guided by our insurance carriers to the extent they would be covering any type of legal expense, including legal defense or a settlement. Usually if you want your coverage to kick in, you have to follow their rules.
We don’t yet know where this is going as there are many variables and considerations. In general, I’ve prioritized making sure our employees feel safe and comfortable at work over the possible financial and legal exposure caused by that approach. That is something one has to wrestle with in a leadership position and that was my choice. But my focus now, in addition to shifting the culture, will be protecting our tax dollars.”
Russo reiterated his call for a change in government, saying it was time to “take back our local government from bureaucratic dictators who are unaccountable and seeking power and compensation for their own gain.”
Montclair will have a chance for some kind of change in May 2024, when the next municipal elections are held.