Nearly three months after placing Township Manager Timothy Stafford on paid administrative leave, Montclair’s Township Council took no action on the matter as it convened for the first time in the new year.

With Stafford’s future with the town in question, the council spent 45 minutes in executive session on Tuesday night, Jan. 17, apparently to discuss an issue that has at times openly fractured Montclair’s governing body.

None of the council members said anything about Stafford before the meeting was adjourned.

The council voted in November to hire a law firm to investigate Stafford after the township’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, filed a discrimination lawsuit against both the township manager and Montclair. 

Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said last week that the closed portion of the meeting would be devoted to a briefing on the law firm’s investigation into claims made in the CFO’s lawsuit that Stafford had subjected her to frequent verbal abuse, dismissed crucial fiscal advice and created a “hostile work environment” for her and other female employees. 

Soon after, Juliet Lee, a former deputy clerk, filed a lawsuit that makes similar allegations.

Yacobellis said that he had been told that the investigation was complete.

In the last week, two additional women, both former Montclair employees, have added their own accounts to the drama, saying that they, too, had been targeted by the sort of verbal tirades detailed in the lawsuits. Their accusations, given in support of the lawsuits, are contained in sworn statements that were obtained by Montclair Local.

Katie York, a former director of the Senior Services Department who provided one of the sworn statements, told Montclair Local before Tuesday night’s meeting that she had already been interviewed by Kathleen Connelly of Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper, the law firm conducting the investigation.

And Celia Trembulak, a former longtime municipal employee who made the other sworn statement, said that she had told Connelly about her experiences in a conversation that went well over an hour.

According to Rao’s lawsuit, she faced increased abusive treatment and reprisals after she began investigating what the suit calls “fraudulent” time and attendance records in the Fire Department and when she acted to prevent the mayor and councilors from improperly receiving health insurance from the township. 

On Dec. 9, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office served the township with a subpoena demanding that pay records, time sheets and attendance logs for all seven council members be delivered to a state grand jury by Jan. 13.

Rao’s lawsuit contends that Stafford took retaliatory steps against her and that they may have crested in late September when Deputy Manager Brian Scantlebury, now the acting township manager, told her she could no longer attend Finance Committee meetings because committee members “found her difficult to work with.” Three council members, Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, make up the Finance Committee, considered a vital arm of township government, with strong influence over funding and taxes.

In his position as township manager, Stafford had been a mainstay at the committee’s meetings, and the edict to remove Rao — an unusual step given her role in the municipality — came from him, Rao says in the suit.

Repeated messages over the last three months seeking comment from Stafford and his attorney have not received a response.

Tuesday night’s council meeting was partly devoted to budget presentations from a number of departments, including the Police Department, Parks and Recreation and the Montclair Public Library. As CFO, Rao made her first appearance before the council since filing her suit. 

The council members, including the Finance Committee members — Spiller at the center of the dais, Hurlock to Rao’s left and Cummings to her right — listened intently to her presentation. 

The council’s taking of its deliberations behind closed doors contrasted with its meeting on Oct. 25 when it placed Stafford on paid administrative leave. That night, the first-floor hearing chamber at the Municipal Building rang with loud arguments as council members traded recriminations. The night ended with four Montclair police officers in full protective gear watching from a hallway outside the chamber.

Following the CFO’s filing of her suit in October, Yacobellis said that Stafford should resign or be removed from his position. Under Montclair’s system of government, as the township manager Stafford has broad powers influencing the operation of the town. But he serves at the pleasure of the Township Council. He was approved by the council, and the council can vote to remove him.

Last week, after Montclair Local published a story about the two former employees giving statements in support of the lawsuits, Yacobellis issued a statement suggesting that the council weigh all options.

“With complaints now from four women on the record,” he said, “my colleagues and I need to have a serious conversation about yours and our values and who we choose to lead our township administratively, remembering the definition of at-will employment.”

Nearly lost in all the furor surrounding the case is the harassment complaint Rao made against Stafford nine months ago, which prompted an internal investigation by Bruce Morgan, Montclair’s affirmative action officer. In his finding, issued in August — two months before Rao filed suit — Morgan sided with Rao, concluding that Stafford had created a hostile work environment for the CFO.

Montclair Local reported on Morgan’s finding on Oct. 24  after obtaining Morgan’s report from a confidential source. The next day the council placed Stafford on paid administrative leave. But the township has never released the findings of the affirmative action officer’s investigation or acknowledged them. It is also not certain if the town, even this deep into the council’s deliberations on Stafford’s fate, provided copies of Morgan’s report to all the council members.