*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.
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.