In a 4-3 vote, the Township Council terminated Montclair’s 30-year-long sister-city relationship with the Russian city of Cherepovets on April 5, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Cherepovets was one of four Montclair sister cities around the globe. In a letter to Cherepovets, Mayor Sean Spiller told city leaders in early March that he was beginning the work of withdrawing from the relationship.

“We see the unprovoked attack by President Putin and certainly what that has meant to the people of Ukraine and it’s certainly devastation,” Spiller said at the April 5 council meeting. “At the end of the day, we want to say we’re doing all we can.”

Spiller and council members Lori Price Abrams, Bob Russo and Robin Schlager voted to rescind the 1991 resolution establishing the sister-city relationship. Council members Peter Yacobellis and David Cummings voted against the resolution, and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock abstained.

Mayor Sean Spiller speaking at the April 5 Township Council meeting, at which his was one of four votes to end Montclair’s sister-city relationship with the Russian city of Cherepovets. (MONTCLAIR TOWNSHIP COUNCIL MEETING)
Mayor Sean Spiller speaking at the April 5 Township Council meeting, at which his was one of four votes to end Montclair’s sister-city relationship with the Russian city of Cherepovets. (MONTCLAIR TOWNSHIP COUNCIL MEETING)

The Consulate General of Ukraine sent him a letter advocating for the elimination of the sister-city relationship, the mayor said. 

“As you are reading this letter, our people, schools, kindergartens, hospitals and infrastructure remain under intense shelling, shootings, and rocket strikes by the Russian armed forces,” the letter reads. “I’m writing to you with the following request: I call on you and your citizens … to express your solidarity with Ukrainians and end your sister cities cooperation with Russia’s Cherepovets.”

The resolution ends the relationship, but the final clause offers an opportunity for the future: “If and when Russian military aggression toward Ukraine ceases and peace between the countries is restored, the township will seek to reestablish a sister-city relationship.”

Ending the relationship not only goes against the instructions of Sister Cities International president and CEO Leroy R. Allala, it counters what many Montclair residents have been saying about keeping dialogue open, Yacobellis said at the meeting. 

“A lot of people have reached out to me to say in these times that we have to be holding on to diplomacy and holding on to hope and keeping the dialogue open,” he said. “I’d like to see us maintain the relationship in hopes that we can have influence on each other.”

When Russia first invaded Ukraine, Yacobellis supported ending the formal relationship, he said at the meeting. But “cooler heads prevail over time,” and ending the relationship is a mistake, he said. 

Hurlock said he also had heard from constituents on both sides of the issue, and the vote was a “close call” for him.

“I’ve always been of the philosophy that you try to stay involved as much as possible to influence,” he said. “This is very tough for me.”

Price Abrams also said she was conflicted — sister cities are meant to be “connections between people,” she said.

“A sister-city relationship is really with the people, and I don’t think the people of Cherepovets or much of Russia are in line with this,” she said. 

But if ending the relationship could serve as a symbolic message about the consequences of Putin’s actions, then it is the right decision, she added. 

Ending the relationship is a psychological act, Russo said. 

“It’s simply saying when you stop what you’re doing, we will reestablish the relationship,” he said. “I didn’t want to see us cut our relationship completely, but we have to do this.”

For Cummings, the decision and others related to national and international issues should not be taking up the time and focus of the council, he said at the meeting.  

“It’s a great press release,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re not going to determine what’s being flown over, what’s being bombed.”

Montclair began its relationship with Cherepovets to help bring food and medicine to the region after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Montclair’s website states. The sistership was born when 12 Montclair delegates traveled to the city in 1990. 

Over the years, Montclair professionals have traveled to the city, several student exchanges have taken place, and Russian children have received life-saving heart surgery in the U.S. with the help of the Montclair Rotary Club, the township’s website states. 

On March 11, Spiller sent a letter, via email and hard copy, to Cherepovets Mayor Vadim Germanov, saying that he was starting the process of withdrawing from the sister-city relationship. “My thoughts are with the Ukrainian people and everyday Russian citizens,” the mayor wrote. “I cannot, however, in good conscience continue to support a symbolic relationship among our local governments as long as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine.”

As of the April 5 meeting, Germanov had not responded, according to Spiller. 

Not receiving a response from the mayor of Cherepovets is not surprising, as free speech is not tolerated in Russia, Yacobellis said. 

“We just have to give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of not responding,” he said.