Montclair Council takes first step toward ousting township manager
Past the midnight hour, following nearly two and a half hours of deliberations in an executive session, the Montclair Township Council voted early Wednesday, Feb. 8, to take the first step toward removing Township Manager Timothy Stafford.
The action, on a 5-0 vote, follows a two-month investigation by a law firm hired by the township into allegations contained in a lawsuit from Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, that Stafford had created a hostile work environment for her and other women working in township government.
The resolution, written just moments before the vote was taken, says “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.” It gives notice to Stafford that he is subject to removal in 30 days. In adhering to New Jersey’s Faulkner Act, the resolution also advises Stafford that he may request a public hearing that would take place 20 to 30 days after such a request.
The council’s vote early Wednesday morning punctuated an issue that has driven a wedge through Montclair’s elected body and stoked anger and suspicions from residents as to why the council had not acted more decisively sooner to purge Stafford from municipal government.
When council members emerged from executive session at the end of the meeting, they took their customary places at the council’s long, curved table. Missing was Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams, who had informed the council well before the meeting that she would not be able to attend. Colleagues later said that though she was not permitted to vote, she participated remotely in their discussions.
Also missing was Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who left the Municipal Building just before midnight, about 40 minutes before the executive session was over.
With no discussion in open session, the council first voted 5-0 to remove Stafford from paid administrative leave. Though Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis and Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo had led the effort to get the council to take action, it was Mayor Sean Spiller who moved the resolution, with Yacobellis seconding.
Asked for their vote by the township clerk, in quick succession Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, Russo, Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, Yacobellis and Spiller each, in a crisp voice, said yes.
Spiller then put forth the adoption of a “preliminary resolution stating reasons for removal of the township manager, Tim Stafford.”
The evening had begun with about 120 residents filling the Municipal Building chamber. By the end of the session, 45 people had spoken during the open comments segment, with nearly all voicing their support for Rao and demanding that the council vote to exile Stafford permanently. One council member – Schlager – left the room in her own silent protest as a constituent leveled accusations at her. She later returned.
When council members trudged back into the room following what was their second executive session, of the night, just three residents remained in the gallery.
The murkiness surrounding Stafford’s future took hold in late October during a stormy council session when Montclair’s elected leaders voted to place the township manager on paid administrative leave. Their action followed Rao’s lawsuit brought against both Stafford and Montclair a week earlier.
Her court filing painted a picture of a manager bent on ridiculing and screaming at her while marginalizing her input into township affairs. His mistreatment, the suit says, extended to other women working for the township.
In the three and a half months since the council effectively placed Stafford in the shadows, his status has loomed over Montclair’s municipal government, and the controversy concerning his behavior has swelled. Juliet Lee, a former deputy township clerk, soon became the second woman to charge Stafford with similar abuses when she filed a lawsuit. And recently, two other former employees, both women, provided statements in support of the lawsuits.
Reacting to the CFO’s lawsuit, the council in November approved an investigation into Rao’s allegations by an outside firm, Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper. The council voted to bypass a bidding process for the work, reasoning in its deliberations that doing so would prolong a final decision on Stafford’s fate. But nearly three months later, no determination had been made leading into Tuesday night’s meeting.
On Tuesday night, moments after Spiller finished a State of the Township address touting the town’s accomplishments and attention to workplace culture, the evening’s tone took a sharp turn with a long line of residents forming at the microphone in the well of the chamber
The first in line, Milton Horowitz, said he had lived in Montclair for 53 years and called himself a “very angry resident.”
Expressing his support for women who work in the Municipal Building, he said that “it is time that these women speak up and make sure that there are consequences for the abuse that is rendered.”
Imploring the council, he said, “I wish and I hope that you do the right thing and forthwith dismiss Mr. Stafford as manager of this town.”
With that, Yacobellis, who has advocated for Stafford’s removal since the CFO filed her suit, said he would put forth a resolution calling for Stafford’s immediate dismissal.
The acting township attorney, Paul Burr, attempted to inject caution that Yacobellis, by speaking about a “personnel matter in public,” was exposing the township to possible litigation. But Yacobellis persisted, citing the lawsuits from Rao and Lee as well as supporting statements from two other women, both former employees who have provided sworn statements in support of the suits.
“We as a government, this council – I don't care if any of you think I'm grandstanding,” Yacobellis said, underscoring the council’s authority as the town’s elected body. “I believe this. I feel this. We sit atop, there's a reason. We have attorneys who report to us and advisers who report to us and policymakers who report to us. There's a reason government is designed to have civilians sit atop the whole structure.”
As residents cheered him on, Yacobellis highlighted the point.
“And we are supposed to make the best decision for the people of this town and for our employees,” he said. “And we have an obligation to do that. We have an obligation to overrule legal advice and counsel to do what we feel is best and what is right and what the people have elected us to do.”
He then advanced his resolution, with Russo swiftly seconding the motion.
In an even voice, Russo read the draft of the resolution point by point:
“Whereas, the Township believes that all employees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect; and
“Whereas, the Township through its Affirmative Action Officer conducted an internal investigation concerning a personnel matter; and
“Whereas, on October 17, 2022, a lawsuit was filed by Padmaja Rao in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division: Essex County concerning the Montclair Township Manager; and
“Whereas, on October 28, 2022, a lawsuit was filed by Juliet Lee in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division: Essex County concerning the Montclair Township Manager; and
“Whereas, in January of this year, two former employees: Katie York and Celia Trembulak submitted sworn statements to the court affirming accusations similar to the ones made by Ms. Rao and Ms. Lee; and
“Whereas, the Mayor and Council of the Township of Montclair consider these to be extraordinary circumstances requiring extraordinary action;
“Now, be it hereby resolved by the Township Council of the Township of Montclair that Township Manager Timothy Stafford is hereby removed from suspension and terminated, effective immediately.”
Burr, who routinely sits on the council table, alongside the council members, said that the Yacobellis resolution was illegal under the Faulkner Act and urged that the council immediately move into executive session. As the crowd broke into catcalls, nearly drowning out the proceeding, the council approved a resolution to take the session out of public view to a second floor conference room, and the council members left the chamber.
About 30 minutes later, the members filed back into the chamber, and Yacobellis withdrew his resolution. But he said that he was determined that a vote be taken on Stafford before the end of the council meeting.
The mood did not lighten from there. Nearly two hours later residents were still streaming up to the microphone to address the council. Many were there to comment on the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan, but the most heated remarks focused on Stafford.
As residents took their turns, some in the seats chanted “Resign” at Spiller.
Some of the speakers read passages from the lawsuits, recounting harrowing depictions of Stafford demeaning Rao and Lee. Mary Birmingham read a description in Lee’s lawsuit of Stafford ordering Lee to search for papers in a trash can as other employees looked on.
“It was incredibly brave of these women to stand up, and reading the lawsuits is really sickening,” she said.
Another resident, Obie Miranda-Woodley, directed her comments to the two women who sit on the council – Schlager and Price Abrams, though Price Abrams did not attend the meeting.
“I'm especially disappointed in the women on this council,” Miranda-Woodley said. “Montclair has its own version of Clarence Thomas.”
Moments later, Schlager put her handbag over her shoulder and left the room. She returned after the comments portion of the meeting ended.
It was about 9:30 p.m. at that point. The council then discussed and voted on a slate of ordinances. At 10:09 p.m. with the crowd thinned to a handful, the members departed the chamber for executive session once again.