Montclair’s township clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves is up for tenure after a three-year trial period, but at Montclair’s last council meeting, residents voiced opposition to a lifetime appointment. Bermúdez Nieves took the position in September 2020. Montclair’s previous Town Clerk, Linda Wanat, held the position for more than 30 years.
Bermúdez Nieves has worked for the township since 2008, beginning as the legal assistant to the township attorney, and later as executive assistant to then-township manager Timothy Stafford. Bermúdez Nieves replaced Juliet Lee, who was deputy municipal clerk under Wanat and then served as acting municipal clerk when Wanat retired. Lee announced her retirement on September 2020, after 19 years with the township. In October 2022, Lee filed a gender and a gender and age discrimination lawsuit against Stafford.
The Role of the Clerk
As clerk, one of the responsibilities Bermúdez Nieves has is preparing minutes of council meetings. The Montclair Town Council then adopts the minutes, so an official record can be made available.
At the August 15 Council meeting, the Town Council approved the minutes for their meetings on May 16th and June 13th.
Lani Sommer-Padilla, calling for more transparency, urged the council to follow the exact letter of the law.
“The Town Clerk needs to go. She is in violation of the law,” Sommer-Padilla said during public comment. “Tonight, you voted to pass the minutes from May 16. Where are the minutes from the July meeting? You should have passed the minutes from July tonight. Where are the minutes from the so-called emergency meeting that was held last week? My understanding is that you may be in violation of the law due to not following the proper procedure. It seems it has become routine for this council to engage in conduct that, at the very least, has an appearance of impropriety, if not legitimately unlawful.”
There was also concern about the clerk’s compliance with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
Chrissy Thomas, a resident and an attorney, said when she files requests for public records, she receives an automatic reply asking for more time.
“I personally have made multiple requests that have received no answers or have asked for more time,” Thomas said. “Every time you make a request, she [Bermúdez Nieves] automatically sends out a response saying ‘we need more time.’ Under OPRA she is required to respond within seven days.”
Complaints about the Township’s inability to fulfill OPRA requests in a timely fashion were raised by residents in 2022. Thomas fears that if the town cannot comply with OPRA, Montclair will be at risk of being sued.
None of the seven town council members addressed questions about the performance of the clerk’s office at the meeting.
Councilor-at-Large Yacobellis believes the Town Council’s employee evaluations should remain private.
“It’s just not appropriate to discuss employee performance publicly,” Yacobellis said. “This is something the Council will deliberate internally and the outcome will become known when we make our decision.”
“I think it’s important that the public understand that Open Public Record Requests are a multi-department function of the government,” Yacobellis added. “The clerk relies on IT and the Law Department to procure and approve release of information, respectively. I also see us getting caught up with minutes and I think it will be resolved shortly.”
Thomas wants to know how the Council reaches their decision about the clerk’s tenure. She does not want the lifetime appointment of the Town Clerk to be decided behind closed doors.
“It’s the Open Public Records Act. There’s also the Open public meetings act. When the town council say ‘this is a personnel issue,’ that is not enough to qualify for closed session. A closed session also requires minutes to which the public is entitled,” Thomas said.
Vacancy in Clerk’s Office
In addition to deciding on the future of the clerk position, the Township is also currently advertising to fill the deputy clerk position, recently vacated by Bridget Barney.
Councilor at Large Robert Russo, in an email to the township’s legal team and human resources director, asked why he wasn’t informed of the vacancy, and said: “We cannot have a Deputy Clerk vacancy while the Clerk is also out! Let’s not have one person decide who works for us, the Council, the Township, and the taxpayers who are demanding action on the issue of Clerk office performance.”
The email Russo responds to is from August 18, 2023, when the township’s human resources director Alisha Dawkins shared that she had received notification that morning of Barney’s resignation and a request to advertise the position. Dawkins indicated that Barney’s last day was August 23. Bermúdez Nieves is on vacation until September 5.
At the August 15 Town Council meeting, Bermúdez Nieves was in attendance. When asked by Mayor Spiller if she had any comments or report to share for the Council, Bermúdez Nieves said she had no comment and did not mention the vacancy in the deputy clerk office.
Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings said he has raised the issue of the clerk’s status with the council but no one outside of Councilor Russo seemed interested.
The next meeting of the Montclair Township Council is Tuesday, September 12.