Montclair heard from its new interim town manager Michael Lapolla at Tuesday’s council meeting. Lapolla gave his first report after a month on the job, and discussed issues residents have had regarding fulfillment of OPRA requests as well as more details on the cyber attack and its impact on the township.
Lapolla, who was appointed to the position at an August 1 special meeting and was to start on August 14, stepped in the position on August 7, following an emergency meeting, due to the death of interim town manager and former longtime manager Joseph Hartnett.
Lapolla said on Tuesday that Montclair would automate OPRA requests by implementing the Next Request system, used by other municipalities and school boards around the state. The new system, which goes live in early October, will allow residents to file a request and track it as it goes through the system and as responses are developed by different departments.
“This is long overdue,” said Lapolla, adding that when implemented, the new system will route OPRA requests to the appropriate department and the request can be tracked in real time as it goes through system, similar to a building permit.
“You can see exactly where a request is being held up and it will take the burden off of the clerk’s office and add a level of transparency that will be welcomed in Montclair,” Lapolla added. According to Lapolla, 99.9 percent of the time the information being requested by OPRA is not information in the clerk’s office but in the Township’s various departments.
Lapolla said Montclair had received over 1,000 OPRA requests so far this year. The township clerk, Angelese Bermúdez Nieves, who is up for tenure and has been the subject of criticism by residents regarding her office’s handling of OPRA requests, confirmed that in 2022, there were over 2000 OPRA requests.
“What the council may not be aware of is that department heads were deputized as custodians of records back in 2019,” said interim attorney Paul Burr, stating that under the old system, an OPRA request comes into the clerk’s office and then gets directed to the department that holds that record, such as Planning or Police.
“As of late, there has been a high volume of OPRA requests; some are personnel records or litigation matters or things that require legal review. We may get a request that turns out tens of thousands of emails and each has to got through a legal review,” said Burr, adding that review often requires an extension.
“We had one request that involved 5400 pages, so it is extraordinarily time consuming,” added Lapolla.
Lapolla also gave an overview and update on the ransomware attack the town experienced this summer, expanding on the details shared by Harnett at the end of July.
Lapolla stated the attack occurred on June 1 when “a bad actor obtained unauthorized access” to the system. The Township immediately contacted law enforcement, FBI, Homeland Security and its insurance carrier, Lapolla said. A team of experts ultimately made the decision to pay the $450K ransom.
“While this was occurring, virtually the entire system was down and departments could not reach information,” said Lapolla. “It didn’t bring the government to a halt, but it made execution of government and delivery of services very difficult. After the payment was made by July 10, we were able to get our information back.
Lapolla said the town continued to work with experts to bring data back online and ensure it was safe; that review is still ongoing, but expected to be over by the end of September. Lapolla also said the town’s insurer was expected to wire reimbursement of the $450K ransom back to the town Wednesday.
“As of now, there has been no indication of any breach of personal data for the public or employees,” said Lapolla. “I wanted to say that I don’t think any government can be prepared for this. In reviewing how it was handled, it was done efficiently and amazingly. This is not something anyone is prepared for.”
Lapolla did not explain why the town wasn’t prepared or why what has been done to secure the township’s system was not in place prior to the attack. Harnett, in his initial reporting of the attack, said: “To guard against future incidents, the township has installed the most sophisticated dual authentication system available to its own system and it is currently up and running.”
Lapolla also announced that the town’s communication director Kayta Wowk had retired, effective Friday. He said that the township would add two additional employees to address IT issues. A new position, for a communications specialist, has been posted.
Ordinance on Gas Leaf Blower Ban Amended
The council also voted 3-2 to approve an amended gas leaf blower ban ordinance to correct errors in the ordinance and comply with state laws in terms of penalties, as well as remove a limitation on equipment.
“The only substantive change is the town had sought to limit no more than two leaf blowers of any kind unless the property was greater than an acre. We are removing that because it was a barrier to some people,” said Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams. ” It opens up the use of additional equipment as long as it’s compliant It doesn’t doesn’t change anything with the law we passed; these are minor refinements.”
Mayor Sean Spiller, Councilor Price Abrams, and Councilor Robin Schlager voted to amend the ordinance; Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilor David Cummings voted against it. Councilor Peter Yacobellis and Councilor Bob Russo were absent.