Citing repeated “verbal abuse and bullying” toward her and “a pattern of hostile conduct” toward other female employees holding top municipal positions, Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, filed a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit this week accusing Township Manager Timothy Stafford of harassment and denying her rights as a whistleblower.

The suit against Stafford and Montclair Township, brought on Monday, Oct. 17, in Essex County Superior Court, contends that Stafford retaliated against her after she says she blew the whistle on him and questioned the actions of other senior and elected officials on a number of fronts.

Overall, the lawsuit depicts a town administration rife with fear, especially for female department heads who often found themselves the target of “disrespectful and offensive” behavior from Stafford.

Subjected to the “same demeaning and derogatory behaviors” that Rao encountered from the town manager, some of the women felt forced to quit their jobs, the suit says.

In one meeting attended by another town official, Stafford became agitated, pounding a stack of papers and causing Rao to fear that he would throw the papers at her, the suit says.

According to the complaint, the reprisals and abusive treatment toward Rao ratcheted up 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.

Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and 4th Ward Councilor David Cummings make up the Finance Committee, considered a vital arm of township government, with strong influence over funding and taxes. Stafford and Acting Township Attorney Paul Burr are mainstays in these meetings, which are closed to the public.

Rao’s participation at Finance Committee meetings became the norm, too, soon after she was appointed as Montclair’s CFO in 2015.

Her exclusion from the committee meetings came at a particularly contentious time, as the council was weighing whether to approve a new fire services contract with Glen Ridge. Ultimately, the council approved a bid from Glen Ridge that will have the neighboring borough paying $850,000 in the first year of the deal while dismissing a report by Rao that calculated Glen Ridge’s obligation at $1.7 million at minimum.

Spiller said he had never been told that Rao had been singled out in her exclusion from Finance Committee meetings, though he said that he has asked Stafford to “review and assess protocols and procedures.”

“As part of that,” Spiller said, “one of the things is that he be the hub of information and determine which directors, which individuals he needs in meetings to get information. So it’s as needed. If they’re not needed, they don’t come. I think we want to get to a more efficient system.”

The lawsuit contends that Stafford’s “pattern of hostile conduct” directed toward reserved for women running departments.

“Rao has not observed Stafford act with the same behavior toward the male department heads in township administration,” the suit says.

Reacting to the allegations in the lawsuit, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis called for Stafford’s removal. He said he was trying to rally support among the seven-member council for a resolution that could lead to an up-or-down vote on Stafford’s future with the town.

"This isn't the first time I've heard from a former or current female employee, directly or indirectly, about the Town Hall workplace culture for women,” Yacobellis said in a statement. “The difference here and why I can say something now, is because one of those women, Ms. Rao, was willing to talk about it publicly (in her suit). I have heard about the kinds of outbursts Ms. Rao describes by Mr. Stafford, from other female employees too."

In an email exchange before the suit became public, Cummings said he did not want to address a personnel matter, but he expressed “complete confidence” in the CFO.

“She has proven to me to be professional, knowledgeable and committed to the township’s finances,” Cummings wrote, calling her “the architect of our current financial condition.” He cited Montclair’s AAA bond rating and continued debt reduction.

“No one on this council can take credit for the stable financial condition we walked into in 2020,” Cummings wrote. “But Ms. Rao can.”

The lawsuit recalls a number of meetings where Stafford verbally abused and bullied Rao when she questioned actions taken or supported by Stafford.

According to the complaint, former town attorney Ira Karasick was present at the September 2020 meeting in which Rao contends that Stafford became agitated with her, pounding a stack of papers.

In another account detailing an episode this past April in front of Burr and former Comptroller Chris Macaluso, Stafford screamed at Rao and called the meeting “disgusting” as Rao tried to answer his questions, the suit says. “Rao was shaken by the ferocity of Stafford’s verbal abuse toward her,” it says.

The complaint says: “Plaintiff has been severely injured as a result of the actions of the defendants and has suffered and continues to suffer from severe emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, anguish, physical and bodily injuries, personal hardship, career and social disruption, psychological and emotional harm, economic losses and other damages.”

As township manager, a full-time appointed position, Stafford was approved by the council and can be removed by a majority vote of the council. Still, his responsibilities and day-to-day control over the operation of the town in many ways outstrip the council’s and the mayor’s own influence.

In recent weeks, Stafford has been the object of intense criticism from members of the community, including some who during the public comments portion of council meetings have called for his ouster. Last month he and Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo engaged in a heated exchange at a Town Council meeting, with Russo saying he had gone to Stafford with information that Bloomfield — Montclair’s presumed competition for the contract — had not submitted a bid after all. When Stafford said that no such exchange had taken place, Russo accused him of lying, and the crossfire escalated.

“You have no right to call me a liar,” Stafford said. “My mother and father raised a polite gentleman and I sit here and I try very hard to hold my tongue and you say something like that. I cannot and will not accept it.”

The lawsuit asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as a trial by jury.

Phone and email messages seeking comment from Spiller were not immediately returned. Neither was an email to Stafford and a voicemail left for Rao. When reached, Rao’s attorney, Roosevelt Nesmith, declined to comment.