NAACP: Montclair township attorney called member ‘three-fifths of a human’
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Two members of the Montclair chapter of the NAACP allege the township’s attorney made a racially insensitive remark — calling one “three-fifths of a human” — after they joined him for a court hearing in September.
And chapter leaders say they’re still waiting to hear back about an investigation of the matter that they believe has been completed for weeks.
“I’ve had a hard time dealing with this,” William Scott, who says the comment was directed toward him, told Montclair Local Monday, Nov. 22. He serves both as co-chair of Montclair’s Housing Commission and as chair of the NAACP chapter’s Housing Committee, and was with Township Attorney Ira Karasick for a September Appellate Court hearing regarding Montclair’s rent-control ordinance, which a landlords group has opposed since it was approved in early 2020. “I’ve spoken with my family members. I’ve spoken with my pastor at my church. It’s deeply troubling.”
Scott first shared his account of the incident with Montclair Local Monday, but weeks earlier, he and other chapter members spoke to an attorney the township hired as outside counsel to investigate the allegations. That followed a late-September complaint from the NAACP chapter to Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller and Township Council members, demanding an investigation.
Cary Chevat, the chapter’s communications secretary, said the comment was made to two individuals from the NAACP; the second has not spoken publicly on the matter yet.
Chevat also said he was among the individuals interviewed by the outside counsel, and was told the attorney’s report would be in by the end of October.
“Since then, I’ve been told by at least three council members they have the report,” Chevat said. “We’ve asked for the result of it, and if any action is being taken by the township.”
Councilman Peter Yacobellis independently confirmed to Montclair Local Monday that he and other members of the governing body had received the report.
Spiller said by email the council “takes such matters very seriously and will review the findings of an independent investigation and take appropriate action.” But he said as a personnel matter, “we will be guided by what we can legally share regarding such.”
Other council members either haven't yet been reached or declined comment. Township Manager Timothy Stafford also hasn't yet returned messages left Monday morning.
The township attorney is one of few municipal employees who report directly to the council; most instead answer to the township manager, who heads the municipal administration.
Yacobellis said because Karasick is a direct employee of the Township Council, any comment he makes could "result in my being subject to a lawsuit and having to hire my own attorney to defend myself at my expense."
"I’m taking a risk in saying anything at all but I want people to know that I hear you and I care and as a non-negotiable general rule, I would never tolerate the kind of language or behavior that Mr. Karasick has been accused of by anyone," he said. "That’s not even a question. This will be addressed as quickly as possible by the full governing body."
Karasick declined to comment for this story, township legal department assistant Kamila Wysocki said Monday.
The allegations come as the end of the year approaches — and with it, Karasick’s current appointment to the position of township attorney. He’s served in the role since 2009, but is reappointed by the governing body each year.
Earlier this month, the Township Council also hired an assistant township attorney, Gina DeVito. The township hasn’t had an assistant attorney since 2019, when the person then in that role, Joseph Angelo, became a municipal judge.
Christa Rapoport, chair of the Civil Rights Commission, said she agrees with the NAACP that “the statements made 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.
The allegations are being made public as the township finds 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 week to hire an outside counsel to review that matter as well.
‘Completely taken off guard’
Scott told Montclair Local he was one of multiple people who joined Karasick for the hearing on the rent-control ordinance in Trenton on Sept. 21.
After they exited the courtroom, he said, a group of five people went to an elevator. Scott said he was to be the last in, but he saw a notice on the wall, saying only four people could be in the elevator at once because of coronavirus social-distancing protocols.
“When I mentioned that, Ira Karasick said, ‘You’re only three-fifths of a human, and don’t worry,’” Scott said. The comment may 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.
Scott said two individuals in the elevator responded with “concerns and disgust about the comment that he had made.” He declined to name any of those individuals, saying they could speak for themselves about the incident if they so choose.
Scott said he was asked by one of the individuals if he’d heard the comment. He replied that he had, but didn’t address Karasick at all, he said.
“I think he tried to equate it to the three-fifths compromise. But that was never considered as the reason for the comment. … We were just completely taken off guard. We understood the context, and it did not have anything to do with voting rights,” Scott said. “It went right to my humanity, as a human being.”
He said he was particularly disturbed that Karasick seemed to make the comment with no hesitation.
“It just came out as if he was saying hello. And that’s what was so stunning,” he said.
Scott said he’s known Karasick for years, and hasn’t heard him say anything similar before. He said prior to the hearing, Karasick made a remark about Scott hating him — but “I told him, ‘No, I don’t hate you. We don’t agree on some things, but I don’t hate you.’”
The incident, he said, “totally changed my perception of Mr. Karasick, to make that type of a statement, considering me as less of a human being.”
The matter was discussed at an NAACP chapter executive committee meeting Sept. 23, Scott said, prompting the letter to township officials. He said he and other NAACP members were interviewed in the time since by the outside counsel.
Scott said he doesn’t know what the township attorney’s thoughts or motives were, but “that does bring up some very serious concerns,” as the attorney has a responsibility to the community of Montclair. “And that can’t have any racial bias,” he said.
Scott, with his multiple roles in the community, frequently calls into Township Council meetings (which continue to be held remotely in the pandemic), but said he hasn’t since the day of the rent-control hearing.
But Scott said he anticipates calling in on Dec. 7, to see how the matter will be addressed.