With the future of Montclair’s exiled township manager, Timothy Stafford, still in question, the Township Council has penciled into its calendar an entry that could go a long way to deciding his fate.

A public hearing, requested by Stafford, has been tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday morning, April 28, in the council’s first floor chamber, two senior municipal officials confirmed to Montclair Local. The officials, citing the sensitivity of the case and the possibility of a settlement agreement still in play, requested anonymity.

Law requires the township to provide the public with 48 hours’ notice before a hearing is conducted, meaning that it has until Wednesday morning to put out a notice. By midafternoon Tuesday, just hours before the council’s regularly scheduled session, that had not happened. Possible, too, is that the hearing would be scuttled, as one was a month ago, as the township and Stafford continue to negotiate the terms of his departure.

A hearing would bring public spectacle to a maelstrom that has rocked municipal government for the last half-year. But by design, one of the officials said, a hearing held on a workday morning would likely keep attendance in the gallery low.

Last October, just days after Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, filed a discrimination lawsuit describing explosive bursts of temper by Stafford aimed at her, the council placed the township manager on paid administrative leave. A former deputy clerk filed a second suit bearing similar accusations, and like the CFO’s suit, named the township as a defendant.

The drama has simmered since then. On Feb. 8, the council voted unanimously to suspend Stafford and give him notice that it intended to remove him from his post. New Jersey’s Faulkner Act gave Stafford the right to a hearing to be held no more than 90 days after the council’s vote. It is unclear if the parties can agree to an extension, but the 90-day window has come and gone.

The resolution putting Stafford on notice indicated that the council was treating him as an at-will employee who could be dismissed without cause. “It is in the best interest of the township to go in a different management direction,” the resolution stated.

Notwithstanding that prerogative, the township has been negotiating what could be a sizable settlement payment for Stafford, who has continued to be paid his salary in absentia. Stafford’s initial demand to the township: Pay him $1.2 million to step aside, or give him $500,000 n a deal that would also return him to his job.

The demands presented by Stafford were confirmed to Montclair Local by four members of the Township Council and a senior government official. The council members said that they did not know if the township had made a counteroffer but that they had been advised by Montclair’s attorneys that the township was actively negotiating with lawyers for Stafford.

In providing their individual accounts to Montclair Local, the council members insisted on anonymity, citing the confidential nature of information learned in executive sessions.

A public hearing had been tentatively slated for Tuesday, March 28, the council members said, but was canceled a few days beforehand. At the time, they characterized the request for a hearing as a “threat” or a “negotiation tactic.” 

Under Montclair’s system of government, Stafford in effect functions as Montclair’s chief executive officer, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the municipality. But, hired by the council, he can also be fired by the council.

Emails seeking comment from Acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury, as well as from Paul Burr, the township attorney, received no reply.

Interviews with experts outside Montclair reinforced that the council enjoys a wide berth in deciding the issue.

“It’s funny,” said William Bailey, Englewood’s former city attorney. “The law says that you have to give a hearing if they want it, but you can do the hearing and whatever happens, you can still get rid of them.”

In the 17 years he worked for Englewood, 13 city managers left the job. Of the more contentious situations, all resolved with a settlement payment and none produced a hearing, he said.

“It almost never goes to a hearing,” Bailey said. “It’s too much of a headache for everyone. Basically, we sat down and worked something out. It’s not in a manager’s interest to have a hearing and have all the dirty laundry aired.”

Ariel Alvarez, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said that the Faulkner Act leaves the decision solely to the council.

“They hired him and they could fire him outright,” Alvarez said.