As an employment attorney who has supervised and conducted countless workplace harassment investigations, and as a Montclair resident, I am shocked and dismayed at how the township manager’s office mishandled its internal investigation of Montclair Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao’s complaint about Township Manager Timothy Stafford’s behavior in the workplace. 

The ineptitude and the failure of many township officials to be proactive and to just do the right thing when they witnessed Mr. Stafford’s bullying behavior bought the township not just one lawsuit – but now we learn there is a second lawsuit with similar allegations of gender discrimination and bullying.

Was anyone even thinking when they received Ms. Rao’s complaint? I have no opinion as to the merits of her legal claims because I don’t know all the facts, but her complaint to the affirmative action officer deserved a prompt and objective review and appropriate remedial action. 

Instead, the “powers that be” dragged out the investigation for more than four months before a final report was issued and the township attorney allowed the affirmative action officer, a direct report of Mr. Stafford, to conduct what was supposed to be an impartial investigation of the complaint that involved his interviewing other direct reports of Township Manager Stafford, who had the power to fire or discipline them at will. His own boss, Stafford himself, responded to the investigation questions with blanket denials. 

According to Montclair Local’s article, it also seems that no one over the four-month period of the investigation told Township Manager Stafford to cease and desist behavior that Ms. Rao, others in the township manager’s office, and even the township attorney witnessed and thought was intimidating to Ms. Rao.

In addition, it appears that no one thought a complaint involving the township manager was important enough to alert the Montclair Township Council or the mayor, who may or may not have been aware of Stafford’s management style but probably should have been aware of it given the proximity of his office to that of the township manager and the probable chatter about what appears to have been conduct by Stafford of which many township officials were aware. 

The inevitable result: a retaliation claim for Township Manager Stafford’s persistence, after the township received Ms. Rao’s complaint, in demeaning Ms. Rao in the workplace and excluding her from an important Finance Committee meeting and the citizens of Montclair having to foot the bill for two costly lawsuits that the township now has to defend because of its ineptitude in handling the investigation and because no township official spoke up about Stafford’s behavior. What a waste of our town’s already scarce resources that should be used for improving our schools and other township services.

Now, after a suit is filed, the township is doing what it should have done seven months ago when it received Ms. Rao’s complaint: have an impartial review conducted by outside counsel so that the inevitable conflict of interest of having the township manager’s office investigate its own conduct would have been avoided. The citizens of Montclair deserve a lot better than a bunch of township officials who disregard best practices, the morale of township employees and their civic duty.


Barbara Flessas