Montclair township attorney resigns, apologizes for calling Black official ‘three-fifths of a human’
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Montclair's Township attorney has submitted his resignation, the same day he sent a letter of apology for calling a Black housing official "three-fifths of a human."
Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller confirmed to Montclair Local the night of Wednesday, Dec. 1 that township officials had received Ira Karasick's resignation letter.
Early Wednesday, Karasick sent Montclair Local a copy of a letter he'd shared with several individuals who joined him for a September Appellate Court hearing on Montclair's rent control ordinance — a lengthy legal battle that ended this week in defeat for the township (represented by Karasick), when the court ruled Montclair's clerk had been wrong to toss out several electronic signatures on a petition that would force the matter of rent control to a public referendum.
According to one of those individuals — William Scott, who serves both as co-chair of Montclair’s Housing Commission and as chair of the NAACP chapter’s Housing Committee — a group of five people was headed into an elevator after the hearing, when they noticed a sign saying the maximum occupancy was four.
“When I mentioned that, Ira Karasick said, ‘You’re only three-fifths of a human, and don’t worry,’” Scott told Montclair Local last month. Others who'd been there — Montclair Housing Commission co-chair Deirdre Malloy and tenants advocate Toni Martin — confirmed the account to Montclair Local Wednesday night.
In his apology letter, sent to the people who'd been present as well as Montclair NAACP President Roger Terry, Karasick said he'd been making a "flippant play on the Constitution that popped out of my mouth lightly, but served to remind African Americans of the systemic discrimination that they suffered, and which I wrongly jokingly referenced." He said he was grateful to those who joined him for the hearing, "and I feel horrible about what I said."
The "three-fifths compromise" was an agreement between northern and southern states during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention to count three-fifths of the slave population for determining representation in the House of Representatives.
Karasick's letter doesn't repeat the comment.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis said a message from Karasick accompanying the resignation described it as for "health and other personal reasons." The resignation letter describes Karasick's formal retirement as effective July 1, but with terminal leave beginning Dec. 2. Montclair Local has sent the township's communications officer a message seeking clarification on how terminal leave will work for a position that's subject to annual reappointment, as the township attorney's role is.
The township's most recent salary ordinance puts the annual salary of a township attorney at $145,350 for 2021 and $149,348 for 2022, but also caps payouts for terminal leave at $5,000.
"I am very, very sorry for the distress that I caused, both to the listeners and to everyone who has heard or read about my words," Karasick wrote in his apology letter. His letter was dated Dec. 1 and addressed "to the Montclair community."
The remarks prompted demands from the Montclair NAACP for an investigation in late September (both Scott and Malloy are NAACP members), and the council hired an outside attorney to conduct an investigation. But Cary Chevat, the NAACP's communications secretary, said as of this week the group still hasn't received any official notice of its findings.
The council is next set to meet Dec. 7, when Malloy, Scott and others had planned to call in for the remote session, seeking some kind of accountability for Karasick's remarks.
With the end of the year nearing, so was Karasick's current term as attorney. He's served in the role for 11 years, but that has been extended each year by a council resolution. The last was in mid-December of 2020, appointing him for 2021. Last month, the council also hired an assistant township attorney, Gina DeVito, filling that role for the first time since 2019 after coming out of a lengthy executive session.
Christa Rapoport, chair of the Civil Rights Commission, told Montclair Local previously she agreed with the NAACP that Karasick's statements "were entirely in bad taste and show a lack of judgment.”
“Our position is, if this is a time for a change, whatever change there is should be made congruent with the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Rapoport said.
Spiller, in an earlier email to Montclair Local Wednesday before acknowledging receipt of the resignation, said township officials "appreciate Mr. Karasick taking the appropriate step of issuing a public apology given the offensive nature of his comments."
He noted that any appointment of a township attorney would be through a public resolution, but didn't hadn't addressed in that earlier message whether Karasick was under consideration for a coming appointment.
"I am committed to ensuring that any individual we appoint is a positive representative of our township values," Spiller said.
Just over a week earlier, Spiller had shared to Facebook Montclair Local's first report on Karasick's comments, saying that "racist language, no matter the context or intent, is unacceptable and does not reflect the values of Montclair." He'd told readers of the post he couldn't speak to the specifics of a personnel matter, "but I am committed to ensuring we live up to our ideals."
Malloy, on Wednesday night, said she supported "William Scott in going public 100%," and said she'd held off on giving her own public account until then "because I was giving the council the opportunity to follow due process, based off of whatever the investigation rendered."
She said she appreciates that a public apology was made "although I'm concerned about the sincerity."
Martin said she thought Karasick's apology "was an excellent letter, and it should have come sooner."
Terry, the Montclair NAACP president, said on Friday the branch "appreciates the sincere apology from Mr. Karasick, and his resignation brings the unfortunate incident to a close."
"We also respect the interaction with the township officials and would like to see them remain transparent in their investigations," he said.
Karasick, in the apology, notes he's lived in town for 26 years, served as township attorney for 11 and was previously Planning Board attorney for five.
"My work for the township, and my entire 42-year legal career, have largely been in furtherance of social justice and equality under the law," he wrote. "Being called out for my own words has rightly forced me to focus the same scrutiny on myself that I have frequently applied to the words and actions of others."
Councilman Peter Yacobellis said late Wednesday he appreciates that Karasick "both acknowledged his mistake and took responsibility for it.
"I have heard from several constituents who have been outraged and or hurt by what transpired, rightfully. There simply is zero tolerance for language like that in Montclair or anywhere and the present-day struggle for true justice and equality for people of color starts with all of us in leadership positions modeling the right language and behavior," he said. "I hope now that some healing can begin."
The accounts of Karasick's remarks were made public the same week the township found itself beginning another, separate investigation involving issues of race. Two firefighters say they believe a promotions test’s scoring rubric was deliberately crafted to put them at a disadvantage, disregarding their seniority and penalizing them for decades-old disciplinary incidents. Council members agreed last month to hire an outside counsel to review that matter as well.
Most township positions report to the township manager — but the manager and the attorney are both direct employees of the township council. Because the manager would have been involved in the development of promotions tests, governing body members agreed to hire an outside attorney, Yacobellis told Montclair Local at the time.
An earlier version of this post misstated Toni Martin's position with a community organization.