Embattled Montclair Council places Stafford on paid administrative leave
Missing from his customary place at the legislative dais, his nameplate gone and his name barely spoken, Township Manager Timothy Stafford was placed on temporary paid administrative leave Tuesday night by a warring Montclair Township Council.
Over more than five hours of political roughhousing that crossed into nothing less than a communal soul searching, Montclair’s governing body weighed how to respond to allegations contained in a lawsuit that Stafford had created a hostile work environment for the town’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao. Before the session ended past midnight, at least two council members came close to tears and one almost stormed out in the middle of a shouting match.
The 5-1 vote was taken with four police officers in full protective gear watching guardedly from a hallway rimming the Municipal Building’s first-floor chamber.
“We broke tonight,” Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said. His colleagues nodded or stared blankly, their faces sullen.
They had endured not only one another’s invectives but the wrath of more than 100 residents who rallied outside the building before bringing their protest inside, packing the gallery. Residents had come to demonstrate their support for Rao and express their scorn for Stafford and a process many said was treating him too leniently. They jeered, they cheered, and at times laughed in derision, drowning out the proceedings.
The council’s response to Rao’s accusations, they said, tapped into longstanding feelings that the administration lacked transparency. Some said the revelations threatened Montclair’s self-identity.
“When I woke up this morning, I thought to myself, is Montclair not actually the town that I thought it was,” said Anuj Uppal, standing at the microphone during public comments and describing himself as the father of three. “It is so deflating, not to me, but to my family and the way we live in our community at our very core.”
The council’s action came a week after Rao filed a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the township and Stafford, accusing the township manager of a pattern of "bullying, verbal abuse and threatening behavior."
In August, Montclair’s Affirmative Action officer, Bruce Morgan, concluded in an internal investigation that Stafford’s behavior had created a “hostile work environment” for Rao. The report, obtained by Montclair Local from a confidential source, recounts several meetings over the last four years where Stafford berated and screamed at Rao. The report also raised questions about whether officials aware of the CFO’s distress — including Deputy Town Manager Brian Scantlebury and Acting Township Attorney Paul Burr — had informed others in the administration.
In her lawsuit, Rao says that Scantlebury told her in September that she would no longer be permitted to attend Finance Committee meetings — a regular part of her job — because committee members “found her difficult to work with.” The lawsuit portrays that action as retribution for policy clashes between her and the town manager. Stafford’s alleged misconduct, the lawsuit says, extended to other women heading departments.
In Stafford’s absence, Scantlebury becomes the acting manager.
Moments after opening the council meeting on Tuesday night, Mayor Sean Spiller attempted to introduce his resolution to place Stafford on paid leave, even as several members were scrambling to get a copy and read it for the first time.
Burr, the acting town attorney, who was interviewed as part of the town’s internal investigation, recused himself before the debate began. He stood or paced by a side entrance to the chamber, listening and sometimes peering in.
Quickly, the resolution drew rebukes, particularly from Yacobellis. His name appeared prominently in the resolution, which called for an investigation into Rao’s allegations as well as an investigation of comments Yacobellis made to news organizations, including Montclair Local.
Over admonishments from the town’s assistant attorney, Gina DeVito, that talking about a personnel matter out of executive session could expose the town to legal action, the gallery booed and Yacobellis persisted.
“Tonight for the first time in my two years I didn't want to come to work,” he said, his voice cracking as he compared the experience to his ordeal as an openly gay man who was discharged from the U.S. Air Force under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“If I, somebody elected by the people,” Yacobellis said, “feel sick coming into this building and fear retaliation from some of you for speaking up, then I can't imagine how some of our employees must feel.”
Sitting to Spillers’s right, Yacobellis said that he found it difficult to believe that the mayor was unaware of the internal investigation by the Affirmative Action office or its findings.
Minutes later, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo, who said he was incredulous that Yacobellis was named in the resolution, pointed and bellowed at one another. Hurlock stood and began gathering his papers, threatening to leave, while Spiller tried for calm.
“What's lost in here is someone has come forward with something that they felt was emotionally harmful,” Spiller said. “We are trying to figure out ways to address that to make sure it's done properly, to make sure it doesn't happen again, to make sure that we do it in a way that whatever action we take holds.”
The mayor’s words did little to soothe the rows of residents sitting shoulder to shoulder.
“You have broken this town,” June Raegner said in the public comments segment. “Shame on you. This is a town where people pride themselves in our liberal and progressive values. You have made a mockery.”
She turned to look at each council member.
“Step down, resign,” she said. “Get out with your tails behind you in shame.”
After more than two hours of furious exchanges, the council went into executive session for negotiations. By the time the members reappeared in the chamber it was after midnight and the crowd had thinned to a few residents. In the end, the resolution that passed purged Yacobellis’ name, but he had to recuse himself from voting. Russo voted no.
A second resolution calling for an examination of workplace culture to ensure a “positive climate and safe reporting practices” passed unanimously.
“We broke tonight,” Yacobellis said, “and I think we needed to break. And my hope is that from that breakage that we can go on a healing journey, certainly a reset moment for me because I don't think it gets any worse than this, and many of us said this, that this is not what we signed up for.”