Montclair council votes to oust township manager
Six months after a lawsuit accused Township Manager Timothy Stafford of creating a hostile work environment for women, the Montclair Township Council took a dramatic and rare step – voting to fire Stafford at a specially convened session on Friday morning, April 28.
A chapter in Montclair's history that often fractured the council, inflamed public sentiment, and at times even fueled a self-examination of Montclair's values, ended with a 5-0 vote and with no open deliberations among council members.
Mayor Sean Spiller and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock were not on hand for the vote.
The session was originally scheduled as a 10 a.m. public hearing, called at Stafford’s request, but at the eleventh hour he waived his right to a hearing. An absent but looming figure since he was placed on paid administrative leave in October, Stafford remained unseen as his fate was decided.
It had been nearly three months since the council gave official notice to Stafford that it intended to dismiss him, providing him under state law with an additional 90 days of salary before final action would be taken. The Friday morning meeting that had promised the spectacle of a suspended township manager facing the elected leaders who had named him to the post ended anticlimactically.
Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo, long the most vociferous voice against Stafford on the council, read the resolution in a muted tone.
“Whereas," Russo read, "the Township Council of Montclair, on February 7, 2023, adopted a preliminary resolution for the removal of Timothy F. Stafford as the township manager pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-93 as it had determined that it was in the best interest of the township to go in a different management direction ..."
The imbroglio began last October with the filing of a lawsuit by Montclair's chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, against Stafford and the township. The suit portrayed Stafford as a menacing boss who subjected her and other female employees to fits of temper and verbal abuse. In her suit, Rao describes a string of episodes where Stafford bellowed at her with such “ferocity” that she became “fearful of facing or communicating with him.”
Among the allegations, the suit contends that Stafford retaliated against Rao, while spurning her input on vital financial matters affecting the township.
The resolution's language underscores the council's treatment of Stafford as an at-will employee who could be let go without cause. That seemingly runs counter to the township's approach to the issue over the last several weeks as it negotiated a possible settlement with Stafford. The resolution included no such tradeoff, a point emphasized by council members after the meeting.
"I would never vote for a settlement," Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings said.
"There is no settlement," said Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, who chaired the 40-minute session in the absences of Spiller and Hurlock.
The acting township attorney, Paul Burr, responding to reproofs leveled by residents at the meeting, defended both officials for missing perhaps this council's most momentous vote.
"Mayor Spiller, he is dealing with a family crisis," Burr said. "And I think the public should be aware of that. That is the only reason that he is not present."
Hurlock decided, Burr said, that having left the February executive session early just before the council made its first step toward dismissing Stafford, he should recuse himself from casting a vote on purging Stafford altogether from Montclair's municipal government.
Yacobellis, in a statement released after the meeting, indicated that Friday's action by the council was long overdue.
"I have believed for a while and going back to last October and again earlier this year that we should have taken direct action to sever ties and exercise the council’s right to choose who we want to be the chief executive of Montclair months ago," Yacobellis said. "I’ve always believed that contract-less, at-will employment gave us the ability to execute this change at any time."
Yacobellis acknowledged that there was nothing preventing Stafford from ultimately suing Montclair, now his former employer. Were Stafford to take that step, a decision on whether to give him a settlement at that point could come before the council.
Earlier this month Montclair Local reported that Stafford had demanded a $1.2 million payment in exchange for his departure, or he would accept $500,000 and remain on the job. The account was provided by five senior government officials, including four council members, who requested anonymity.
Burr was asked after the meeting about the notion that Stafford would sue Montclair and use that as a vehicle to receive a settlement payment from the township.
"He could say he has a tort claim," Burr said. "That's all I'll say."
Reached by phone, Stafford's attorney, Phillip George declined to discuss why his client had changed course and waived a public hearing.
"It's a complicated situation as I'm sure you know, but at this point in time, we would have no comment," George said.
On whether Stafford was contemplating a lawsuit against Montclair and would again seek a settlement, George said, "I would have no comment on that."
What impact Stafford's firing would have on Rao's lawsuit was not immediately clear, though Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney for the CFO, suggested it made a statement stretching beyond the particulars of the case.
“It’s a relief that no women who work for the Town of Montclair will be subjected to the hostile work environment found to have been created by Stafford," Smith said in a text. "The Town Council did the right thing. Better late than never."
As he has before, Russo, the council's longest serving member, decried the wide berth given to the township manager to run municipal affairs, He renewed his calls on Friday to fundamentally alter Montclair's system of government, saying that in 23 years on the council he had never seen such dysfunction.
"This is a system that's allowed a manager to be out of control," Russo said, describing it as a "czar-like system."
"The point is," he said, "the system has to be changed to ensure that whoever is here does not abuse the power that they have. And that's the key. Change the system to a weaker manager, stronger counsel system."
Time pressure had been building for the council. New Jersey's Faulkner Act, which sets out protocol in matters involving the disciplining and removal of a township manager, dictated that the council had 90 days after putting him on notice to take action. With that period about to lapse and the council not scheduled to convene again until May 16, today's session took on extra urgency.
On Wednesday, the township announced that a public hearing would be held, honoring a request from Stafford and his attorneys. But Yacobellis described fluid last hours before the session, with Stafford withdrawing his request and the council scrambling to figure out how to proceed. Montclair did not put out word that the public hearing had been canceled until Friday morning on the township's website.
"There were a lot of moving parts in the last 24 hours," Yacobellis said as he packed up his papers at the council's table. "We didn't know until late last night, it's been very dynamic. Obviously, both the mayor and the deputy mayor were not here. So it was a lot of having to figure out how to operate within the law. It was no longer a hearing. It became instead just a special meeting."
The wording of the resolution – which also appoints Brian Scantlebury as acting township manager – came together late Thursday night, with council members having a first look at the final iteration as they took their seats Friday morning, Yacobellis said.
The session, held on a workday morning, drew about 40 residents and an additional audience watching on TV34 and online. Constituents were given an opportunity to speak after the council took its vote. They were buoyed by the vote but expressed cynicism over why the process to oust Stafford had taken half a year to culminate.
“This is a weak and cowardly way out,” said June Raegner, a consistent presence at council meetings. “But it will get the job done, albeit in a ridiculously long, drawn-out and expensive manner. Please don't pat yourself on the back for standing up to abhorrent behavior because you never really did.”
For six months, the tempest swirling around Stafford had often preoccupied the council and sent it spiraling into disorder. Public displays of contempt among Montclair’s elected leaders are no longer beyond the norm.
The controversy seemed to tap into a sense among many in the community that their municipal government lacked transparency and was fostering a toxic workplace. To these residents, Montclair’s self-image as a progressive and tolerant place deserved scrutiny as much as Stafford’s behavior.
The keynote was likely struck at a raucous October council session the night Stafford was placed on administrative leave, just days after Rao filed her lawsuit.
Hurlock and Russo railed and pointed at one another, with Hurlock at one point threatening to exit the room. In an overflowing chamber it was not always possible to hear even the shouting council members, as residents drowned them out with their own boisterous yelling, in support of the CFO and to express their scorn toward Stafford. It is a scene that has repeated itself many times since.
Yacobellis questioned that night why the resolution first put before the council called for the township to investigate not only Rao’s allegations but also remarks Yacobellis had made to news organizations. In an impassioned tone, he suggested that Rao’s case transcended politics and touched on deeper issues.
“Tonight for the first time in my two years I didn't want to come to work,” Yacobellis said, his voice cracking as he compared the moment to his ordeal as an openly gay man who was discharged from the U.S. Air Force under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
"If I, somebody elected by the people, feel sick coming into this building and fear retaliation from some of you for speaking up," Yacobellis said, "then I can't imagine how some of our employees must feel.
A few days later a second discrimination lawsuit, containing allegations similar to the CFO’s, was brought against Stafford and the township by Juliet Lee, a former township deputy clerk. Two more women, both former Montclair employees, provided supporting statements to the lawsuits, describing what they said was mistreatment by Stafford.