Despite Montclair council’s vote, ambiguity surrounds Stafford’s future
Following months of quarreling and debate and a conclave in the wee hours, the Montclair Township Council decided to begin the process of dismissing Township Manager Timothy Stafford in a pair of rapid-fire votes.
The council’s 5-0 votes early Wednesday morning, Feb. 8 – first on a resolution to end Stafford’s paid administrative leave, then on a preliminary resolution to both suspend him and give him notice that he is “subject to removal” in 30 days – seemed to pull the entire matter out of limbo.
And yet, given the resolutions’ language and the law governing what the council can and cannot do, the next phase carries its own ambiguity, even including a scenario – though unlikely, legal experts say – that could return him to his desk in the Municipal Building.
In broad terms, experts familiar with municipal law say, the council has two paths. The first follows the provisions in New Jersey’s Faulkner Act, which in addition to the 30 days’ notice gives Stafford the right to request a public hearing. Should that happen, the council would then vote on a final resolution, giving council members a chance to cast a second and decisive vote on Stafford’s future with the township.
A second path would lead to a negotiated settlement or severance at some point along the way that would culminate with the manager’s departure.
In either case, the Faulkner Act ensures Stafford three months of pay, a period that began with the preliminary resolution Wednesday morning. Stafford’s paid administrative leave began with a council vote last Oct. 25, meaning that he could wind up with roughly six and a half months of salary from Montclair without working a day. And that doesn’t include money he would receive in a possible settlement.
An X factor emerged, too, in a clause that seemingly could provide an argument for council members who might want to change their vote in Stafford’s favor once a final resolution is before them. The clause cites the conclusion of a council-commissioned investigation into allegations by the township’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, contained in a lawsuit, that Stafford had created a “hostile work environment” for her and other women.
The clause suggests that the investigation conducted by the Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper law firm knocked down a core element in Rao’s allegations, that the CFO had been targeted by Stafford because of her gender.
“Whereas, on February 7,” the clause says, “the Township Council was informed of the findings and conclusion of the independent employment practices investigation, specifically: the investigator did not find sufficient evidence to sustain a claim that Mr. Stafford’s conduct created an abusive or hostile work culture for female employees in the township.”
The results of the law firm’s investigation have otherwise not been publicly disclosed.
Language in the first clause of the preliminary resolution calling for Stafford’s removal may have been crafted in vague terms to underscore another idea, that the council has the prerogative to do what it chooses, no matter what the investigation found. The clause says that “the Council of the Township of Montclair has determined it is in the best interest of the township to go in a different management direction.”
The clause is a reminder, said William Bailey, Englewood’s former city attorney, that because Stafford is an at-will employee, the council has the latitude to dismiss him for any reason it chooses.
“It’s funny,” Bailey said. “The law says that you have to give a hearing if they want it, but you can do the hearing and whatever happens, you can still get rid of them.”
Englewood, like Montclair, follows the council-manager government structure delineated in the Faulkner law that gives a manager sweeping authority over the running of the municipality. At the same time, a manager reports to the council, which hires him and can fire him.
Bailey said that in the 17 years he served as the Englewood city attorney, 13 city managers came and went. None of the more contentious situations ended with a hearing, being resolved instead by a settlement payment.
“It almost never goes to a hearing,” Bailey said. “It’s too much of a headache for everyone. Basically, we sat down and worked something out. It’s not in a manager’s interest to have a hearing and have all the dirty laundry aired.”
Ariel Alvarez, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said that the Faulkner Act gives a township council ultimate power over a decision on how to handle a situation like the one Montclair is confronting.
“They together hire a manager who serves as the chief executive officer, the chief executive in terms of administration and putting the budget together,” Alvarez said. “They hired him and they could fire him outright.”
Stafford’s attorney, Phillip George, did not reply to a phone call seeking comment.
Drama and uncertainty fell over Montclair’s municipal government a week before the Oct. 25 session, when Rao, the CFO, filed a gender and whistleblower discrimination lawsuit against Stafford and the township, chronicling years of reprisals and verbal abuse she says she suffered under the township manager. It was not unusual for Stafford to scream at her, often while shunning her advice on critical township business, leaving her shaken by the ferocity of his temper, her lawsuit says.
A second lawsuit, filed within days by a former deputy township clerk, Juliet Lee, contains graphic descriptions of Stafford berating her with “oppressive” and “abusive" behavior. Since then, two more women, both former municipal employees, have detailed their own difficult interactions with Stafford in sworn statements supporting the lawsuits.
In the background, too, has been the township's own investigation into Rao's allegations, conducted by Montclair's affirmative action officer, Bruce Morgan. The report, which was obtained by Montclair Local from a confidential source, concluded that Stafford created a "hostile work environment" for the CFO. The township has never released it or acknowledged it. It is unclear if the outside investigation took it into account.
The resolution passed in November authorizing the investigation made no mention of Morgan's work. It says the township was prompted to investigate allegations that appeared in news reports.
From the outset, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis expressed strong reservations that the wording in the November resolution might limit the investigation. He repeated his concern about the investigation to Montclair Local this week, several hours after the early Wednesday morning votes were taken.
"My sentiment about it remains what it was at the beginning, that the scope was insufficient," Yacobellis said.
In a way, this week’s meeting bookended the Oct. 25 meeting when Stafford was put on leave. Both were filled with heated exchanges, on the council’s dais and in a packed gallery. Dozens of residents, wary that the council might reinstate Stafford, came to the microphone Tuesday night to lambaste council members, with some demanding Mayor Sean Spiller’s resignation.
Early on Tuesday night, the council moved into executive session to weigh the conclusions of the outside investigation into Rao’s allegations and to debate a resolution put forth by Yacobellis to remove Stafford immediately. Then, at the end of the regular meeting – around 10:10 p.m. – council members disappeared again into executive session.
Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams had informed the council months ago that she would be unable to attend the Feb. 7 meeting. Although she participated remotely in the exeutive session deliberations, she was not permitted to vote. Around midnight, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock headed out of the building, leaving five council members to finish crafting the resolutions and vote.
Hurlock did not respond to an emailed question on why he departed.
It was nearly two and a half hours later, after 12:30 a.m., when the five remaining council members returned to their seats in the chamber. Less than two minutes later, the votes against Stafford had been cast, and the council adjourned.