Montclair Council holds off decision on Stafford
The future of Montclair Township Manager Timothy Stafford remained in limbo after the Township Council discussed his status in executive session at its meeting Tuesday night, March 14.
The council’s deliberations came amid the continuing maelstrom surrounding Stafford and the discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against him and the township, which was brought by Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao.
The council took no action on Stafford, although a speaker in the public comment section of the meeting pleaded with the elected officials to fire him.
The only action the council took after the executive session was to extend the contract of acting Township Attorney Paul Burr by 60 days. The vote was 6-0, with Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo abstaining.
Burr has advised the council during a contentious period when Montclair has confronted not only Rao’s suit but a second discrimination suit brought by a former
deputy township clerk, Juliet Lee.
As the council has slogged its way through the business of governing the last five months, lurking in the background has been the complicated issue of what to do with a township manager accused of mistreatment by another high-level administrator. His belligerence, Rao’s lawsuit says, extended to other female employees.
Almost immediately, the case gripped township politics, sometimes sending it into near chaos played out in the open. Last Oct. 25, with the chamber gallery on the first floor of the Municipal Building overflowing, mostly with residents angered on behalf of Rao, some council members screamed invectives at one another.
After hours of furious exchanges the council voted that night to place Stafford on paid administrative leave, but not before police officers appeared in full protective gear to ensure the peace between council members.
In November, the council commissioned an outside law firm to investigate Rao’s allegations. The details of the investigation have not been released, but a resolution passed by the council on Feb. 8 says that the inquiry concluded that Stafford had not created a “hostile work environment,” a finding opposite from the one reached by the internal investigation by the township’s affirmative action officer completed months earlier.
At its Feb. 7 meeting the council voted under New Jersey’s Faulkner Act to give Stafford notice that he was subject to removal in 30 days. “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 resolution says.
The involvement of Burr in the case has also come into question, given that Burr witnessed some of Stafford’s displays of temper that were described in Rao’s suit and in a report produced by the internal investigation. Burr has often advised council members during meetings on what they should and should not say regarding the case.
Rao’s lawsuit describes a string of meetings with Stafford over recent years, where the township manager, she says, “verbally abused and bullied” her. Her account is punctuated by a particularly tempestuous scene last April.
A few months before that, Stafford issued a memorandum to all township employees and job applicants stressing Montclair’s commitment to equal employment opportunity.
“All employees are entitled to a workplace free of words, actions or conduct,” Stafford wrote, “that are discriminatory with regard to race, color, creed, national origin, nationality, ancestry, age, sex, familial status (including pregnancy), marital status, religion, domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, atypical hereditary or cellular blood trait, genetic information, liability for military service and mental or physical disability (including perceived disability and AIDS and HIV status). Employees or supervisors who, through such discriminatory words, actions, or conduct, create a work environment hostile to fellow workers are subject to disciplinary action.”
The council also issued a proclamation recognizing Women’s History Month. While describing the “critical economic, cultural, and social roles” that women play, the proclamation also says that “too many women continue to feel the weight of discrimination on their shoulders.”