Montclair mayor says he will urge administrative leave for Stafford
In the wake of a harassment lawsuit filed against Montclair Township and Township Manager Timothy Stafford, Mayor Sean Spiller said Thursday, Oct. 20, that he is going to make a motion at the next Township Council meeting to place Stafford on administrative leave.
“At our next council meeting on Tuesday, I will move, and believe there will be support for placing the township administrator, Tim Stafford, on administrative leave,” the mayor said in a statement.
He said the township was engaging “specialized employment practice counsel” to investigate accusations that Stafford had “a pattern of hostile conduct” toward female employees, as it was described in a lawsuit brought by Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao.
In response to the mayor’s statement, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis released a statement saying: “Our CEO Tim Stafford must resign or be removed. I’m glad the mayor’s position has evolved to believing we should place Stafford on administrative leave. I don’t read that as an option in the Faulkner Act — the law that governs appointment and removal of the manager. But I support doing whatever we can to remove him from power immediately.”
Council-at-Large Bob Russo went further, saying in a written statement that Montclair should abandon its current mayor-manager form of government.
"I am now calling for a change of management and a change in our form of government," Russo said. "Everyone certainly knows where I stand from my many statements at the last several council sessions. The manager clashed with me as well at the last public meeting."
Russo added, "I have been waiting for an apology myself before I participate in meetings with so much conflict among management and staff. There is definitely a need for more respect for and among our elected officials!"
Stafford was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in Essex County Superior Court late Monday night by Rao.
According to the complaint, Rao was subjected to hostile treatment by Stafford after she began investigating what the suit calls “fraudulent” time and attendance records in the fire department and when she acted to prevent Township Council members from improperly receiving health insurance from the town.
The retaliatory steps against her may have peaked on Sept. 26, when Deputy Manager Brian Scantlebury told her she could no longer attend Finance Committee meetings because committee members “found her difficult to work with,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends that Stafford directed his “pattern of hostile conduct” to other women running departments in the municipality.
“Rao has not observed Stafford act with the same behavior toward the male department heads in township administration,” the suit says.
“As mayor, I take very seriously any allegation of harassment in our township administration and I know my fellow council members share the same concern,” Spiller said in a statement posted on Facebook. “In light of allegations shared in the press yesterday that had not been previously brought to the attention of the council, it is necessary to take further action to ensure that our employees are provided a safe and professional work environment.”
Spiller said he would propose that the township hire Culturupt, a New Jersey-based human resources consulting firm, to conduct a culture and climate assessment of the administration.
“We need to make sure that we have best practices in place, that our employees know and are trained on appropriate professional conduct and that in the event of any concern, proper reporting processes are in place that can be safely accessed,” the mayor said.
Regarding the investigation Spiller mentioned in his statement, Yacobellis said: “I have concerns about doing an investigation— notably to what end? I understand that we have a fiduciary responsibility to mitigate liability as a township and it’s a delicate balance. But to me, saying that we need an investigation is the same as saying that we don’t believe the women and need to verify things. That troubles me.”
Spiller added a personal note to his statement.
“As a Black man in America, I have enough lived experience to understand the impact of harassment in daily life and I have made it a mission as mayor, as an educator and a union leader to fight for equity, justice and respect for all people,” he said. “As the father of two young children, I am committed to making sure that I do everything I can in my personal and professional life to create a more just and equitable future for them.”