*Updated with audio file of emergency meeting

Montclair will hold a regular council meeting this Tuesday (8/15) and the agenda includes the second reading of an ordinance to prohibit gas-powered leaf blowers and an ordinance reintroducing the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan. Yet, there is still fallout from an emergency meeting held last Monday, where four councilors voted to approve Michael Lapolla to start as interim town manager, effective immediately, following the sad news that the Township’s interim manager and former manager, Joseph Hartnett, had died.

The four council members who attended a 2:30 p.m. emergency meeting Monday were Mayor Sean Spiller and Councilors Peter Yacobellis, Lori Price Abrams and Robin Schlager. Three members of the council who did not attend, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilors David Cummings and Bob Russo, said they were unable to attend, stating they learned of the emergency meeting minutes before it was to take place.

These three councilors have raised concerns about being left out of the decision making process.

During an August 1 special meeting called to appoint Lapolla as interim town manager with a start date of August 14, both Cummings and Russo walked out of that meeting, stating their objections to both Hartnett’s appointment and the lack of transparency around the process to select Lapolla.

(From right) Councilor Robin Schlager, Councilor Peter Yacobellis, Mayor Sean Spiller, Councilor Lori Price Abrams and interim attorney Paul Burr listen to public comment during the special meeting held on August 1 where Michael Lapolla was appointed interim town manager. (MARIA MONICA FERNANDEZ)

Cummings, Russo and Hurlock appeared blindsided at the July 18 meeting when a late night resolution was introduced to appoint Hartnett as interim town manager, immediately following a resolution to hire Hartnett’s firm, Government Strategy Group. Spiller, Schlager, Abrams and Yacobellis voted yes to both resolutions.

Attorney Recommends Emergency Meeting

When asked how he notified his fellow council members and the interim town attorney of Hartnett’s passing and the plan for an emergency meeting, Mayor Sean Spiller said:

“I learned of the tragic passing of Joe Hartnett on Sunday night. First and foremost, my thoughts were on the comfort of the family and to respect their privacy as they dealt with the sudden and unexpected loss. It is my understanding that Mr. Hartnett’s family formally notified the township of his passing on Monday. While feeling shock and loss myself, as Mayor, on Sunday I contacted Mr. Burr to ensure we were legally positioned to operate as needed. On Monday, Mr. Burr informed me there were financial and other matters which required action and he noted the need for an emergency meeting. We took action at the emergency meeting to start our new manager days earlier than originally planned, as per the recommendation of our attorney.”

At 1:39 p.m. on Monday, Cummings sent the following email: “I was told by a resident about an hour ago Joe Hartnett passed away. What is the legal direction we need to take? The Township has to have someone in this position.”

Cummings’ email was sent to the entire council, interim township attorney Paul Burr,  assistant township attorney Gina DeVito, and deputy manager Brian Scantlebury.

Burr responds at 2:32 p.m., after the meeting had started: “This is deeply sad news. Our condolences go out to the Mr. Hartnett’s family and friends. The Council will need to have an emergency meeting to pass a resolution to accelerate Mr. LaPolla start date effective immediately. The emergency meeting will be held pursuant N.J.S.A. 10:4-9. The emergency meeting starts at 2:30 pm. Mr. [Tony] Fan sent invites to the entire Council.

An email from Fan, the Township’s chief information officer, is sent to Cummings at 2:22 p.m. with instructions for a 2:30 Webex Personal Conference meeting. Russo also received an invitation to attend the emergency meeting at 2:22 p.m.

“I could not attend the last minute meeting as I was in court meetings with my clients,” said Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who was first notified of the emergency meeting at 2:15 p.m. “I contacted the Mayor and Township attorney and informed them I could not attend the meeting. Mr. Burr informed the council that I could not attend the meeting.”

Hurlock said of the notification of the meeting: “It was extremely short notice.”

“I heard from Paul Burr just before 2 p.m. on Monday about Joe Hartnett’s passing,” said Price Abrams. “I spoke with Sean at 2 p.m. who said he was going to try to pull together the emergency meeting for 2:30 p.m. — he was trying to reach everyone.”

Schlager said she learned of both Hartnett’s passing and the emergency meeting on Monday.

“Councilor Cummings called me at 12:01 p.m. [Monday] and I wasn’t able to answer my phone. Then about a second after that, he texted me that Joe Hartnett died. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I immediately called him back and I have to say I was terribly, terribly upset…choked up and crying to hear this news,” said Schlager, adding she left her office and went home. “At 2:05 p.m., Mayor Spiller called me and asked if I was available for a 2:30 p.m. emergency conference call and if I would consider making Mr. Lapolla the acting manager starting as soon as possible. I said I would. He added, ‘I have to go, I have more calls to make to the rest of the council.'”

Russo said he attempted to join the meeting from a doctor’s appointment but could not get on the call.

“I was told by text from Tony Fan that the meeting was over at 2:50. So I tried and failed to participate. If not illegal, this whole incident is a clear case of incompetence, communication breakdown and unethical conduct,” adds Russo. “I call on all involved to apologize to the rest of the Council that could not participate due to late notice of a totally unnecessary meeting when there was no real ’emergency.'”

At 3:16 p.m. on Monday, Cummings responds to Burr’s email:

“This is ridiculous. The Mayor called me at 2:12 and Peter sent me a text at 2:35. I just looked at my email that Tony sent.

You all could not wait to find out when everyone was available? Did any other Council member know about Mr. Hartnett’s death yesterday? Extremely difficult to know the Town Attorney and Mayor knew yesterday and did not feel the need to share that with the entire body.”

Councilor Peter Yacobellis, in an email blast to his constituents, indicates he knew about the emergency meeting — and a resolution to appoint Lapolla immediately — earlier than other councilors. In the email blast, sent at 1:45 p.m. Monday, Yacobellis first shares the news of Hartnett’s passing. He then states:  “Given Joe’s death, the Council will have an emergency meeting this afternoon by conference call, to accelerate Michael’s appointment to be effective immediately. I’ve spoken with Mayor Spiller and I’ve spoken with Mr. Lapolla and have asked him to be in Montclair tomorrow to host an emergency department heads meeting.”

A Void in the Manager’s Office

When asked to explain why an emergency meeting was necessary, Burr said “the sudden and unexpected death of the Township Manager created a void in the Manager’s Office requiring the Governing Body to act immediately.”

Burr further stated: “As the Deputy Manager is designated to serve as Manager only during the Manager’s temporary absence or disability as articulated in 40:69A-94; this unanticipated vacancy constituted an emergency for the Township with no person duly authorized to conduct Manager specific duties both emergent and otherwise, as provided by N.J.S.A. 40:69A-95. As such, an emergency meeting was called by the Governing Body pursuant to N.J.S.A. 10:4-9 of the Open Public Meeting Act, which specifies that such meeting may be called “upon the affirmative vote of three quarters of the members present…” (emphasis added). Consistent with this reading of the Faulkner Act, Deputy Manager Scantlebury served in an acting capacity during the former Township Manager’s leave of absence (i.e., temporary absence or disability), and then was appointed by the Governing Body by resolution upon the Manager’s termination. Thus, it was appropriate for the Governing Body to accelerate Mr. Lapolla’s start date since he had already been appointed Interim Manager by resolution of the Council a week earlier.”

Burr does not explain why the council, as well as the public, could not have been given a couple hours notice, rather than minutes, to attend the meeting.

On Friday (8/11), Cummings demanded that “the Mayor call a special meeting for the purpose of deliberating and voting upon a resolution to appoint an Interim Manager because the Emergency Meeting called by the Mayor on 8/7/2023 was not done with proper notice.”

“I can only ascertain this was done intentionally to circumvent me, Bill and Bob from participating,” Cummings said. “I was told staff members started preparing documents for the special meeting around noon on Monday. Why didn’t the Deputy Mayor, Councilor Russo and myself receive notice then? That strengthens my concern there was nefarious intent.”

The announcement of the emergency meeting on the town’s website and an attached notice  stated there would also be a period for remote public comment, but that didn’t happen. Several residents emailed councilors to say they were on hold for public comment but were never let in.

On Monday (8/7), at 3:45 p.m., Baristanet contacted Montclair’s communications director Katya Wowk to obtain an audio file of the meeting. Wowk said she asked the clerk for the audio file. On Friday, Wowk said she still had received no response from the clerk.

On Monday afternoon, the Township posted the audio of the call.

YouTube video






10 replies on “Montclair Councilors Cry Foul at Emergency Meeting Attended by Four (UPDATED)”

  1. A complete mess, and entirely unnecessary. There was plenty of time to call a special in-person meeting with 48 hours notice to the Council members and the public. No emergencies happened anytime last week that required extraordinary measures. But it seems that the Mayor and Councilors Schlager, Price Abrams and Yacobellis were running scared and stupid, worried that Mr. Hartnett’s sad and sudden passing might upset their plans to turn the Township over to outsiders, consultants and novice developers. From the facts it is reasonable to conclude that notice of the hastily called emergency meeting was provided to the right Council members much earlier than the three dissenters, and deliberately held back from those three until the meeting had almost or already started. Given the breakdown of the Council (pun intended), one probable reason for this sneaky tactic is that if 7 members attended, 6 would be needed to vote to open the meeting (5 needed if 6 attend) and the majority didn’t have those additional votes. Moreover, despite the requirement that every governing body meeting have a public comment portion, if the article is accurate, that nicety was dispensed with by late notice to the public and sketchy communications.

    As previous commenters, including me, have stated, and we shouldn’t forget, that beyond this most recent pathetic maneuver, the entire game of musical interim, temporary and acting managers that this Council is playing is definitely bad for the Township, and is likely unlawful.

  2. Had enough yet Montclair???
    When will the sleaze be enough to do what needs to be done? Vote them out!!!

  3. Forget the Foul Four. They are the Gang of Four. This is a blatant action by these four. More shame.

  4. The Burr Era as Township Attorney has really been a tragic comedy.

    He’s knee-deep in the Spiller/Yacobellis chicanery (with minions Abrams and Schlager) but lacks competence to execute.
    Upon further reflection, perhaps the Foul Four’s need for a shill and Burr’s desperation for a gig are a match made in funny business heaven.

    Heaven for them, but HELL for the rest of us!

  5. I really don’t understand what Paul Burr is doing pretending to be the township attorney. His main function seems to be pleasing Sean/Peter duo while racking up massive bills for outside counsel. Is this why we are paying him about $140K/year + benefits? What a deal! (eye-roll)

  6. The time Spiller spent on how this had to be done legally right away for the payroll, was one of the most ridiculous things I ever heard. What the AG was going to indict him if the deputy town manager approved the payroll. What they did to the other three was really, really, nasty.

  7. Huh? Who approved payroll when Stafford was put on leave? Scantleburry wasn’t formally appointed for months. In fact, Montclair did not have a Manager until that resolution was passed. The payroll argument sounds like total bullshit.

    Spiller’s sudden preoccupation with legality is hilarious. Hey, Sean: Where do you stand on O’Toole, workplace discrimination, and health benefits?

  8. Now that the link to the emergency meeting was added to this story, any Montclair High School CGI or SJI student, and most middle school students, can listen, compare the content of the meeting to the Open Public Meetings Act (NJSA 10:4-9b,10b and 11), and conclude that the meeting was not lawfully commenced or conducted.

  9. If Spiller found out about Hartnett’s death Sunday evening, why did he wait until after 1:30 pm Monday to inform the Council that a meeting was necessary, in one hour? Why? There was no Interim Manager on Sunday night. None on Monday morning. No interim manager by noon Monday. I for one did not notice any crippling of the township’s day-to-day operations. Then again, I only expect garbage pick-up to work these days; ever visit town hall for help?

    Doubly suspicious is this CYA farce by Burr furiously citing every legal code he could find to show a crazed dedication to suddenly going by the book, much like Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles tearing through legal texts (https://movie-sounds.org/western-movie-quotes/quotes-with-sound-clips-from-blazing-saddles-1974/wait-a-minute-there-might-be-a-legal-precedent-of-course-land-snatching-land-la-land-see-snatch).

    In fact, this is what the City Council and Mayor have become. A farce. Mel Brooks couldn’t do them justice. My advice, next time these “public servants” call a meeting into session, everyone in attendance should burst into laughter and keep it up until the cops arrive. Maybe that way some other people in town might finally hear about what’s happening with their local government.

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