Montclair issues official notice of Stafford public hearing for Friday morning
Through six months of stormy public debate that often devolved into angry mayhem on the Montclair Township Council, Timothy Stafford has remained a looming figure. His predicament as a township manager – suspended and facing accusations of mistreating female employees – has left a trail of distrust and bitterness directed toward Montclair’s municipal government.
The drama is now headed to a possible denouement, with Montclair posting on its website notice of a public hearing scheduled for Friday, April 28, at 10 a.m. at the Municipal Building, in the council’s first-floor chamber. It is possible that should the hearing go forward, the council will follow up immediately with deliberations and a vote Friday on whether to dismiss Stafford, according to a resolution accompanying the announcement.
The hearing appeared under the heading, “Township Council Special Meeting,” and was added to the calendar Wednesday morning, alerting the public within 48 hours of the proceeding, as required by New Jersey law. Held at Stafford’s request, it would return him to the room where this council, in one of its first actions after assuming office three years ago, voted to name him township manager, after he had served as “acting” manager since 2014.
These are the same council members who responded to allegations of discrimination in a lawsuit brought by Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, by first putting him on paid administrative leave last October. Then on Feb. 8, the council suspended him and officially declared its intention to permanently remove him.
Since then, Montclair Local has reported, the township has engaged in negotiations with Stafford that could lead to a different route – the council could grant him a settlement package preempting the hearing or sign off on a deal with Stafford once Friday’s event is over.
“The purpose of the special meeting is to conduct a public hearing pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-93 term of municipal manager; removal; suspension,” the public notification says. “Other official action may be taken and portions of the meeting may be held in executive session.”
“Upon conclusion of the public hearing,” the resolution says, “the Township Council shall defer its final vote on removal and adjourn for no less than one (1) hour to give the council ample time to consider all matters presented by Township Manager Stafford.
The resolution establishes the “rules of procedure” for a rare political spectacle, which no one could recall ever happening in Montclair. Following protocol laid out in New Jersey’s Faulkner Act, Stafford and his lawyers “shall be given a full and unlimited opportunity to present any matters they wish to the Township Council.” They will also “have the ability to introduce evidence to the Township Council in support of any proffers made.”
Council members are not permitted to engage with Stafford or his attorneys, and neither will Stafford’s side have the opportunity to “interrogate, or examine any member of the Township Council, its attorneys, or its agents or employees,” the resolution says.
The resolution does provide for up to one hour of public comment before the hearing begins, though it is unclear if Stafford will be in the room and have to listen to harsh rebukes from residents angry that he has stayed on the job this long and continued to receive his salary. For months, residents have come to the microphone at council meetings to air their grievances over Stafford and express their support for Rao.
The timing of the hearing, on a weekday morning, could well curtail the number of spectators, though the township was planning to live-stream it. (Montclair TV34 YouTube channel).
In the background, while not expected to be addressed at the hearing, is a lawsuit brought by a former deputy township clerk, Juliet Lee, that contains the same sorts of allegations described in Rao’s suit. Both suits depict a township manager prone to fiery bursts of temper aimed at them and at other women working for the municipality.
Stafford’s legal difficulties extend to a lawsuit filed this week by two Black Montclair firefghters against him, Fire Chief John Herrmann and the township, among others for systematically discriminating against them.
The resolution underscores Stafford’s status as an at-will employee, affirming the council’s right to summarily fire Stafford. The council “has the inherent authority to regulate the terms and conditions of employment of the Township Manager,” the resolution says.
Still, over the last several weeks, lawyers for Montclair and Stafford have engaged in negotiations that could send the township manager off with a considerable going-away settlement.
Stafford initially demanded $1.2 million to step aside, or a $500,000 payment that would allow him to return to his job. His demands were confirmed to Montclair Local by four members of the Township Council and a senior government official. In providing their individual accounts to Montclair Local, the council members insisted on anonymity, citing the confidential nature of information learned in executive sessions.