By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

To date, Montclair hasn’t issued a formal statement condemning former Township Attorney Ira Karasick’s description of a Black housing official as “three-fifths of a human.” If the township took any steps to discipline Karasick — who has apologized and stepped down, but will stay on Montclair’s payroll until mid-2022 — officials haven’t said so.

Weeks after outside counsel investigated the matter and sent the Township Council a report, no council member had addressed Karasick’s comment publicly. That changed only when Montclair Local interviewed the target of the comment — William Scott, co-chair of Montclair’s Housing Commission and chair of the Montclair NAACP chapter’s Housing Committee — and prepared a report on his account.

That, members of the Montclair African American Clergy Association say, shows an unacceptable lack of transparency. In a letter released Friday afternoon, they’re demanding a full denunciation of Karasick’s remarks, more transparency into how they were handled and policy changes to address racial incidents going forward.

“[Mayor Sean Spiller] did not respond until the Montclair Local made a report,” the Rev. Campbell B. Singleton, pastor of the Union Baptist Church of Montclair, said by phone after the letter was released. “That’s what infuriates us.” 

In emails to Montclair Local in the days following the association’s release of its letter, Spiller and multiple council members pointed to statements they’d made publicly or in private addressing Karasick’s comment, which the former township attorney described in his apology as a thoughtless “flippant play on the Constitution” — one meant to acknowledge racism, not as an expression of hate. They also pointed to legal and procedural constraints on how much information about personnel matters could be shared with the public.

But in their letter, members of the clergy association say they wanted more — including earlier indications that the matter was being investigated at all.

Earlier this month, members of the association met with Karasick and his rabbi, Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, they said. Multiple members of the association described that meeting as a productive one.

“The issue we’re concerned about is the council right now — the mayor and council in terms of response,” the Rev. Elizabeth Campbell of Rising Mt. Zion Church, who serves as Scott’s pastor, said.

Karasick first made the comment on Sept. 21 in front of multiple people, following a court hearing about the township’s disputed rent-control ordinance. There were too many people to fit in an elevator while social distancing, so Karasick told Scott: “Don’t worry, you are only three-fifths of a human,” according to accounts by multiple people present. He then told upset members of the group he was making a reference to the Three-Fifths Compromise at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which determined each enslaved person would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation.

A week later, the Montclair chapter of the NAACP sent township officials an email demanding an investigation; the next morning, Spiller replied to say, “We will fully look into the matter.”

From there, association members say there was silence. Scott didn’t know an investigation was taking place until he was contacted by the outside counsel the township had hired, the letter says; the NAACP has told Montclair Local it, too, was left in the dark.

Montclair Local ran its report reflecting Scott’s account of the comments online Nov. 22, several weeks after council members received the investigator’s report. Spiller shared that story on Facebook the next day, saying the process of reviewing and addressing Karasick’s comments is “still ongoing” but that racist language is always unacceptable, and he was “committed to ensuring we live up to our ideals.”

It was only after the story became public that Spiller reached out to the NAACP’s president to set up a meeting with Scott, the clergy association says.

Its members also fault the council for not replying when the Rev. Anita Wright, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, called into a Dec. 7 council meeting, criticizing the council for making no condemnation of Karasick’s statements as a group, and asking: “Does Mr. Karasick’s resignation dissipate the need for the township’s accountability?” 

Later that week, Montclair Local reported that because Karasick on Dec. 1 — the same day he issued his apology letter — retired, but did not resign, he’ll formally remain an employee on terminal leave until mid-2022, collecting about $86,000 in paychecks over that time.

Montclair Local has sought the report generated by the outside counsel — the firm Lum, Drasco and Positan — through a formal public records request. The township clerk’s office first said it couldn’t identify any such record, and then asked for extra time after the news organization pointed to public officials’ acknowledgment of receiving it. It ultimately denied the request, as a personnel matter. 

Spiller said the township “went through an appropriate process to investigate this matter and the outcome ultimately resulted in Mr. Karasick’s public apology and him no longer serving as the township attorney for Montclair.” He said the legal constraints on such processes “can be frustrating, even if the end goal is ultimately realized.”

The clergy association, in its letter, called on the township to “officially and publicly denounce” Karasick’s statement as “insensitive, degrading, dehumanizing and injurious.” Spiller pointed to his own past comments on social media, as well as what he called a “productive and honest discussion” with the NAACP. 

Councilman David Cummings said he’d spoken both to Scott and to fellow Housing Commission Co-Chair Deirdre Malloy, who’d also been present when Karasick made the comments: “I personally apologized to them and my conversation and words with them will remain private.”

Councilman Bob Russo said at a December meeting he believed the township owed Scott and others an apology for the comments; he told Montclair Local the same this week. Councilman Peter Yacobellis said he, too, would support such an official statement, and pointed to his own public comments to that effect.

Cummings said he stood by the council’s actions — “We took this matter seriously and moved appropriately with an investigation.” But in regard to the request for an official apology, he said the council’s response “along with many community members in the township, did not mirror the response or action that occurred after James Harris made some inappropriate comments at former Councilor Renee Baskerville’s community meeting.” Harris was removed as education chair of the NAACP branch in 2020 after he made statements widely criticized as anti-Semitic during a Dec. 30 meeting.

The clergy association also called for the release of the independent counsel’s report, which Spiller said the counsel told the township wasn’t possible. 

The association is seeking a zero-tolerance policy on racism for all township employees and representatives, publicly posted alongside all township statements on fair and equitable treatment. Spiller said the township is open to reviewing its policies, but that it also already had stringent rules, including a new version of its nondiscrimination ordinance passed in 2021 (that version added protections for gender identity to existing nondiscrimination rules).

The association wants cultural competency training for all township employees and representatives. Spiller said the incident “should not cast a shadow on our dedicated professional staff,” but that the township would review its training practices. Yacobellis, the first openly gay member of the council and the founder of the Out Montclair LGBTQ pride organization, said he was already discussing such training with the township manager in the context of LGBTQ issues.

Russo said the township “should be looking at more training, protocols and transparency in responding to such employee conduct issues.” 

The letter also asks for more transparency into Karasick’s retirement and his continued pay.

Spiller, asked by email if the township had considered disciplinary action against Karasick or if any remained possible, said that while “his retirement eliminated some of the actions we may have taken, the council continues to consider any options legally available.”

The mayor said he, as a Black man, understood and felt the pain caused by Karasick’s remarks and was “committed to continuing the dialog within our community.” 

The Rev. Robert C. Coles, pastor of the Petra Baptist Church, said while there’s been some contact with township officials on the matter, “we don’t think there’s been a lot of clarity in some of the discussions.” 

But Singleton said he has some optimism about next steps.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the mayor responds when there’s media attention,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Ira Karasick's rabbi.