When the Montclair Township Council voted to approve a new 10-year contract to continue providing fire services to Glen Ridge, a matter that had roiled public debate for months and sown dissension among the town’s leaders was put to rest. At least for the moment.

Left lingering after the Wednesday night 4-3 vote were a torrent of grievances and recriminations ricocheting among council members and town officials, laying bare the fissures in the town’s governing body and played out in a packed Municipal Building chamber.

Council members accused others of withholding vital data and out-and-out lying over what had led to the final contract that will have Glen Ridge paying $850,00 next year – about $76,000 less than it pays this year. In June, Glen Ridge opened up a new contract for bidding, inviting Bloomfield to make an offer and causing Montclair to undercut the terms of the expiring 10-year deal.

It turns out, Bloomfield never made an offer, the Glen Ridge borough attorney, John Malyska, told Montclair Local this week. Councilor-At-Large Bob Russo said Wednesday night that up to a year ago he had urged his colleagues to communicate with Glen Ridge more forcefully to head off a sealed bidding war that led to similar rancor 10 years ago.

Russo said he had learned from Bloomfield officials early in the process that the town was not preparing an offer and that he had passed the information on to Township Manager Tim Stafford.

Kate Albright

Saying that Russo’s account was news to him, 4th Ward Councilor David Cummings asked Stafford, who was seated on the opposite side of the curved dais, if Russo had brought his reconnaissance to him.

“Negative,” Stafford said.

“You’re a liar,” Russo said a few moments later.

Mayor Sean Spiller chastised Russo, leading to an apology. But with a standing-room crowd of about 150 people filling the gallery looking on – including a contingent of about 40 Montclair fire personnel – the vitriol flew, turning the public comments segment of the session into charged political theater.

“You have no right to call me a liar,” Stafford said. “My mother and father raised a polite gentleman and I sit here and I try very hard to hold my tongue and you say something like that. I cannot and will not accept it. Apology notwithstanding, you did not say that Bloomfield was not going to bid. You didn’t say it to me, you didn’t say it in executive session. Tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re wrong,” Russo bellowed back. “I won’t stand for your treatment of a person who has gotten several thousand votes.”

As they shouted over one another, the mayor tried to play peacemaker from his center spot on the platform. Alluding to prospective cannabis store owners who had introduced themselves during the public comment segment, Spiller said, “I think we need to get the cannabis group back up here.”

Russo and Councilor-At-Large Peter Yacobellis said that an analysis done by Montclair’s chief financial officer, calculating the fire department’s cost of servicing Glen Ridge at between $1.7 million and $2.9 million, had not been shared with them until late in the process. The CFO’s findings contrasted sharply with an estimate cited by Spiller and others – which relied on FEMA criteria. By that method, the cost of helping Glen Ridge is around $100,000.

If Glen Ridge exercises its one-way right to renew the deal for an additional five years at the end of the contract, its annual payment would reach the CFO’s lowest estimate of $1.7 million in 2037.

“I get that it doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t seem fair,” Spiller said. “We could have the discussion and debate around, do you think that should be higher, do you think that should be less, but I know the backdrop of that is we might have gotten no deal.”

Beyond the supporters and opponents of the contract, there was a third antagonist, unseen but playing a part – Glen Ridge. Acting Montclair attorney Paul Burr said he had received a call from his Glen Ridge counterpart, Malyska. Burr alluded to the possibility of “impending litigation” should Montclair try to withdraw or renegotiate its offer. But it was unclear if Montclair could at least have another discussion with Glen Ridge without risking legal consequences.

Yacobellis likened Glen Ridge to a “deadbeat kid not contributing to the house.”

“Being offered table scraps by our wealthy neighbor next door is honestly insulting,” said Deirdre Birmingham, a Montclair resident. “The manner in which it was done, pitting neighboring towns against one another in a blind bid process is shameful. Does this sound like a recipe for fairness and respect?”

Martin Schwartz, a former Planning Board member, said, “It’s about whether we will continue to subsidize our next-door neighbor and again let them pick our pockets – not paying their fair share.”

Several firefighters, as well as Fire Chief John Herrmann and former chief Kevin Allen, said the contract was a win for both towns. Pulling out of the deal, Herrmann said, would be “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Kate Albright
Kate Albright

As the debate persisted for nearly four hours, it was clear the council was divided. Favoring the approval of the new contract was Spiller, Cummings and 3rd Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams. Russo, Yacobellis and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock were opposed.

It was thought that 2nd Ward Councilor Robin Schlager was undecided in the days leading up to Wednesday night’s session and was, in essence, the swing vote. While acknowledging that she had not received all the financial analysis until after Montclair had made its bid, she decided to support the contract. She was ultimately persuaded by the specter of a lawsuit, she said.

“It was my hope that maybe tonight we could table this agreement, we could go back and relook at the CFO’s accounting of the fire department and have some more discussions, comparisons, and dig in and see what we might get,” she said. “But it seems like we cannot do that without putting our bid in legal jeopardy.”

A lawsuit, she added, could “stain our township.”

“In the world of should,” said Councilor Price Abrams, “we should get more money with the value that’s been provided. But to secure the bid, to win the contract, we had to make a decision.”

“I think we have to live in the world of the reality of the situation,” she said.

In a motion seconded by Yacobellis, Russo urged the council to table the vote and to allow shared services experts from the state to review the contract.

It was rejected, and the vote proceeded in perhaps the quietest moments of the night.