Montclair Councilor at Large and mayoral candidate Peter Yacobellis, in a email to constituents Monday, shared he was withdrawing a lawsuit “against a current resident and a former resident who we feel crossed serious lines with their conduct earlier this year.”
The crossing of the lines Yacobellis refers to occurred in February 2023, when David Herron and Martin Schwartz made statements during public comment at a Montclair town council meeting alleging that Yacobellis has a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from all votes, discussions and related communications connected to the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment.
At the February 21 meeting, Herron stated that Yacobellis’ position as executive director of Out Montclair is a “direct conflict of interest” because the organization had received “monies, donations, financial support from individuals seeking to develop Lackawanna Plaza.”
Herron also said: “Be advised, a formal complaint has been filed with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office concerning these very serious matters.”
On Monday, March 13, Schwartz and Herron learned they were being sued by Yacobellis, who alleged that the two defendants engaged in a “self-interested, defamatory smear campaign” designed to damage his reputation.
Regarding his announcement to drop the lawsuit, Yacobellis wrote: “This was a decision I made out of a desire to try and put the need for some inner peace and community healing in front of the need to be right. I had a very strong case that I was prepared to litigate fully. But as a mayoral candidate now, this is a distraction and my focus needs to be on solving some of our larger challenges as a town.”
On Tuesday, during public comment at the June 13 Montclair Council meeting, Herron disagreed with Yacobellis’ characterization of why he was withdrawing his lawsuit.
“He withdrew that lawsuit because he was facing a frivolous lawsuit complaint that I was about to file. And, by the way, the deadline for him to have withdrawn that lawsuit was today.”
Herron also disputed Yacobellis’ claims that he had strong case.
“There’s a high bar for an elected official to win a defamation lawsuit. It requires actual malice, or total disregard for the accuracy of one’s statement. He could not have won. This was nothing but a feeble attempt to silence me.”
Herron said of the lawsuit: “It was mean spirited, it was vicious. It was outrageous.”
Herron also said that before withdrawing his lawsuit, Yacobellis made a settlement offer that would require Herron to agree to releasing a joint public statement with Yacobellis, where Herron would be quoted as saying he and Yacobellis had come to an amicable resolution and that he didn’t have all the information when he said Yacobellis had a conflict of interest.
On Tuesday, during public comment, Herron said Yacobellis thought to make him his “political slave,” and then stated “I am not your Negro.”
In an email Tuesday, Schwartz said that before withdrawing the case, Yacobellis, through his attorney, had offered to settle in May for $20,000 to recover his attorney fees and costs. Schwartz’ attorney had responded by calling Yacobellis’ suit a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
Herron said Thursday he never planned to settle and would have never agreed to that statement.
“I was quite disappointed. I wanted the matter to be decided by a judge. Unfortunately, a person can file a suit and withdraw it at any time for any reason.”
Yacobellis, in a statement Tuesday night, said: “I don’t need to be right. I want peace. The community needs healing and peace. Everyone can look at all of the facts and details and these individuals past behavior and statements and their online behavior and much more and develop their own points of view. I’m choosing to move forward and focus my time, talent and energy on the bigger picture which is governing for 41,000 people.”
Herron said Thursday he was reviewing all his options legally, and without sharing specific details, alluded to other possible actions that he may take.
Yacobellis has been the most vocal of any of the Montclair councilors in his support of the Lackawanna Plaza plan. The legal sparring between Herron, Schwartz and Yacobellis parallels the polarizing debate around what to do about Lackawanna Plaza and the intense feelings Montclair residents, both for and against the plan, have about the redevelopment project.
Wanted: A Montclair Diversity Preservationist
Montclair Residents for Responsible Development, an organization Herron is a member of, was founded in an effort to scale back the Lackawanna Plaza plan. The group first started a petition. Its members, who continue to raise awareness during public comment and have organized community meetings and walking tour, remain focused on the redevelopment and continued concerns about gentrification.
“The lawsuit has nothing to do with me. I understand both sides,” said Aminah Toler, a member of Montclair Residents for Responsible Development, on Saturday. “My concern is the gentrification that will rapidly happen if Lackawanna is approved at what it currently is.”
Toler lives in the Fourth Ward. She grew up on Central Avenue, in Montclair’s Frog Hollow neighborhood, until gentrification pushed her out. She remembers the changes to housing in the town, starting in the mid-1990s.
“So many two family homes have been flipped and turned into single families. These type of changes push families out. If Montclair continues to pride itself on diversity, we have to do something to protect that diversity.”
She added: “If this development goes up, it will be a big slap in face to African Americans in the Fourth ward. It will cause a ripple effect.”
That ripple effect, says Toler, who also serves as vice chair of Montclair’s Landlord and Tenant Advisory Committee, will be more people leaving Montclair because of rising rents or landlords not maintaining amenities in an attempt to get tenants to move so rents can be raised.
“We matter and the council needs to show us we matter,” said Toler, referring to African Americans in the Fourth Ward and around Montclair. “It’s up to the town council to find ways to preserve the diversity we have.”
Herron said many people in the Fourth Ward are not aware of the proposed plan and that the township had not done enough to engage the community or give residents a seat at the table. Toler says the plan seems designed to serve newcomers.
“If the town cares about the community and all the people in it, then their thought process can’t be to make it a visitor paradise,” says Toler. “They have to focus on the residents.”
Toler said the council as a whole can make it priority to ensure and preserve the diversity it touts on its website and then look for ways to do that, rather than simply point to the 20% of affordable housing units as well as the 10% of workforce units in the proposed redevelopment plan.
She added: “Montclair is really broken. You can see it with this current council. Where’s the humanity, the compassion?
Other members of Montclair Residents for Responsible Development also spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Rachel Quinn Egan said, that in addition to gentrification, the redevelopment will cause serious congestion and traffic issues. Egan read a statement she found on social media made by Yacobellis in 2017, before he became a councilor, where he also expressed concern about the residential volume being discussed by the previous town council regarding the number of units (at that time 350 apartments were being proposed) for the town’s previous Lackawanna redevelopment plan.
“We don’t need the Magic Kingdom on that site,” said Maggie Joralemon. “We need a supermarket, affordable housing, workforce housing, townhomes, pervious green space, a community space, all sourced with solar energy.”
An introduction of an updated plan for Lackawanna Plaza is expected to take place at the July 18th Montclair Township Council meeting.