Montclair will pay attorney who stepped down after racial comment about $86,000
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
The Montclair township attorney who stepped down the same day he apologized for calling a Black housing official "three-fifths of a human" — describing the comment as an insensitive joke — will continue to draw a paycheck from the municipality until July 1 of next year.
That amounts to about $86,000 in payments to Ira Karasick spread out from the start of December — Karasick notified township officials on Dec. 1 that he was retiring, starting terminal leave the next day — until midway through next year, based on the township’s most recent salary ordinance for non-union management.
It sets a salary for the township attorney of $145,350 for this year, and Township Communications Director Katya Wowk said there are two pay periods for employees in December, out of 26 total for the year. Karasick would also be entitled to pay for approximately 13 pay periods in 2022, at an annual salary of $149,348.
Township Communications Director Katya Wowk confirmed the intention to continue paying Karasick on Thursday, Dec. 9, after conferring with Montclair's human resources director and its chief financial officer. She cited a township code allowing an employee over the age of 55 to convert unused sick time into "a terminal vacation at full pay, to be taken not more than one year preceding the effective date of his or her retirement." The unused time, after that conversion and under rules that limited how much time can be accumulated, would run out July 1.
Wowk said Karasick doesn't receive payments beyond his salary — for instance, as a bonus or other incentive.
"Retirement" is the operative word, according to Wowk. While Mayor Sean Spiller on Dec. 1 told Montclair Local that township officials had received Karasick's "resignation letter," the letter itself specifies he's retiring — and Wowk also stressed the distinction in an email to Montclair Local this week.
The salary ordinance that establishes the township attorney's pay also says that employees hired after Oct. 1, 1991, "will have terminal leave capped at $5,000." Wowk, asked about that provision, said that would only apply to a payout for a retiring employee who was cashing out remaining sick time, instead of using the leave. But the wording of the salary ordinance itself doesn't seem to specify it's for sick time, or only for those retiring. An employee who was terminated wouldn't be entitled to any payout, Wowk said.
Karasick, effectively, will be on vacation until midway through 2022, she said.
Under Montclair's form of government, most township employees report to the township manager. The attorney, though, is an employee of the Township Council — and subject to reappointment annually, usually in December for the coming year. The council hasn't taken any action yet this December to appoint an attorney for 2022 — meaning it's not a given that Karasick would have been in the role for the coming year. But Wowk said that won't affect his status as an employee collecting pay on terminal vacation leave.
Having Karasick still technically employed, but on leave, also wouldn't interfere with any decision by the council to appoint an attorney, she said: "The matter is left to the governing body's discretion."
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, reached late Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, said he didn't know the details of how any terminal leave or payout would work — only that if Karasick is still getting paid, it's important the municipality "get something out of that," with help transitioning to a successor. Other council members haven't yet returned messages left that afternoon seeking comment regarding Karasick's departure and issues around it. Spiller also hasn't yet returned an email message sent Wednesday, Dec. 8.
Calls for accountability
The council, at a conference meeting Dec. 7, heard from several community members who said they wanted further accountability after Karasick's comment — and transparency into an investigation conducted after the Montclair branch of the NAACP reported the incident to township officials in the days after it occurred.
The comment itself has been described to Montclair Local by multiple people who heard it — first by William Scott, the individual to whom it was directed. Scott, who serves both as co-chair of Montclair’s Housing Commission and as chair of the NAACP chapter’s Housing Committee — was among the township officials and activists who'd joined Karasick for a September Appellate Court hearing on Montclair’s rent-control ordinance — a lengthy legal battle that ended late last month in defeat for the township (represented by Karasick), when the court ruled Montclair’s clerk had been wrong to toss out a number of electronic signatures on a petition that would force the matter of rent control to a public referendum.
Scott said a group of five people had 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. Two of the other individuals who’d been there for the rent-control case — Montclair Housing Commission Co-chair Deirdre Malloy and tenants advocate Toni Martin — confirmed the account to Montclair Local.
Township officials had been silent on the issue as they hired an outside attorney to investigate, as well as for several weeks afterward. Yacobellis confirmed to Montclair Local that council members had the results of the investigation in hand by the end of October. But Cary Chevat, the Montclair NAACP’s communications secretary, said the group never heard back about any findings or steps taken. The chair of the township's Civil Rights Commission, Christa Rapoport, has said she too was left in the dark.
No officials addressed the issue publicly until Scott came forward to media on Nov. 22. Spiller told Montclair Local that day the council "takes such matters very seriously and will review the findings of an independent investigation and take appropriate action.” He said as a personnel matter, the township would be guided by legal constraints on what it could share; the next day, he shared Montclair Local's story on the matter to Facebook, saying the process of reviewing and addressing Karasick's comments is "still ongoing" but that racist language is always unacceptable, and he was "committed to ensuring we live up to our ideals."
Karasick's letter notifying the mayor and council he was stepping down, though sent the same day as his apology letter, doesn't reference the "three-fifths" comment or cite any reason for leaving the post.
If township officials still expect any formal action regarding Karasick, they haven't yet said so.
The Rev. Elizabeth Campbell of Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church, calling into the Dec. 7 council meeting, said Karasick's comment had "hit at the very core of this godly man's [Scott's] being." She said Scott deserves a formal apology from the mayor and Township Council.
Malloy, sounding as though she was speaking through tears, also called in, saying there should have been consequences for Karasick — and referencing "consequences for a Black man in town who made remarks in a public setting not long ago."
That seemed to be a reference to James Harris, who was removed as education chair of the NAACP branch in 2020 after he made statements widely criticized as anti-Semitic during a Dec. 30 community meeting. Harris, as seen in a video of the statements posted to Facebook by another resident, had said that as chairman of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, he was stunned that in Lakewood "the Jewish community controls the Board of Education and the City Council — but they spent huge amounts of money sending kids to the Yeshivas. And, they've gutted the budget for the Black and Latino students who are left in the public schools." He later apologized for the comments.
"People are tired of the lack of respect and support for Black leaders and children in this community," Malloy said. She also said Karasick's apology was undermined when he wrote he'd meant the "three-fifths" comment as an "acknowledgment of the ingrained injustice upon which our country's institutions were built." The comment was an allusion to reference the “three-fifths compromise,” 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.
"Mr. Scott and I are very clear on the history of the Constitution," Malloy told the council. "I can't imagine not speaking up."
The Rev. Anita Wright, speaking as a member of the Montclair Interfaith Clergy Association, noted the lack of a formal acknowledgment or public action in the several weeks after the council was told by the NAACP about the allegations against Karasick. She, too, called for an apology from the township's leadership, as Karasick was an agent of the municipality at the time of his comment.
If council members received the outside counsel's report by the end of October, they had at least two public meetings before Scott came forward publicly.
"I'm more concerned about the lack of transparency of the investigations that have gone on here, and how the manager has handled incidents like this over the years," resident Martin Schwartz said.
Yacobellis said he agreed an apology from the township itself would be appropriate — not because any individual other than Karasick took part in the comment, but to demonstrate accountability and show respect for the Black community.
"And this should have been dealt with sooner. It's definitely where our structure of government is our own worst enemy," he said.
That's been a topic bubbling up in some circles of Montclair's political leadership and influencers. Chevat, also the secretary of Montclair Democrats, authored a guest op-ed in Montclair Local noting Montclair's mayor has no executive power, and calling for a change to a form of government where the mayor has more authority. Councilman Bob Russo, a former mayor, has said he'd support such a change.
"Whose responsibility is it to lead?" Yacobellis said. "I think as a result of us taking as much time as we did, Mr. Scott and others were rightfully frustrated and came forward. We had over a month go by where we should have acted on it, and it's not acceptable."
Scott, for his own part, told the council that he'd get through the hurt caused by the comments with the help of his pastor, his family and God. And he said he'd continue work on housing and other issues important to him. He also said he'd eventually reach out to Karasick, "because it is in my heart to do that."
"But it's not about me," he said. "It's about our community. We have to respect one another. We have to move forward. We have to believe that Montclair is a wonderful place to live."
This story has been updated to reflect a further clarification from Wowk about the circumstances under which a payout cap applies. Wowk said she previously misspoke.
It has been further updated to specify in the headline and first few paragraphs the payments Karasick would be entitled to receive in December 2021.