Already facing separate discrimination lawsuits from two women accusing him of creating a “hostile work environment,” Montclair Township Manager Timothy Stafford is now being confronted with similar claims from two other women, both former municipal employees, according to sworn statements obtained by Montclair Local. 

The fresh accusations, from Katie York, a former director of the Senior Services Department, and Celia Trembulak, who managed the township’s animal shelter, are contained in statements in support of the lawsuits. Their statements describe a tempestuous township manager targeting women employees with unsparing outbursts and acting in a manner to “physically intimidate” them.

“You have broken me,” Trembulak wrote in her statement, recalling words she said to Stafford as she says he bellowed at her during a fiery meeting.

With two more women coming forward with accusations against Stafford, an imbroglio that has engulfed township government is likely to intensify – especially as an investigation approved by the Township Council into Stafford’s conduct is completed.

On Tuesday evening, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said that the council will be briefed on the investigation in closed session at its next meeting.

The investigation followed a gender discrimination and whistleblower lawsuit filed in October against both Montclair and Stafford by the township’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, in which she chronicles years of reprisals and verbal abuse. It was not unusual for Stafford to scream at her, often while shunning her advice on critical township business, leaving her shaken by the ferocity of his temper, her lawsuit says.

Shortly after Rao’s suit Stafford became a township manager in exile, placed on administrative leave by the council in a session that bared a fracture among Montclair’s elected officials, with some members shouting invectives at one another. But the drama was only building.

Three days later, a second lawsuit was filed by another woman, Juliet Lee, a former deputy clerk, who described a string of similar ordeals and called Stafford’s behavior “oppressive” and “abusive.” Her suit, like Rao’s, depicted a troubled workplace at 205 Claremont Ave., with women employees on edge, fearful that Stafford would lash out and subject them to humiliation in front of other Municipal Building employees.

In one searing meeting, Lee says in her suit, Stafford forced her to sift through a trash can to find copies of papers as colleagues looked on. The suit says that Stafford’s belligerence drove Lee to quit her job and sell her Bloomfield home, and that lingering trauma makes it difficult for her to return to Montclair, even for family visits.

Katie York (LINDA MOSS/FILE PHOTO)
Katie York (LINDA MOSS/FILE PHOTO)
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Sworn statements, such as the ones given by York and Trembulak, differ from affidavits or certifications filed in court or administrative proceedings, said Larry Lavigne, an attorney in Union who focuses on employment litigation, including discrimination cases. He is not involved in either Rao’s or Lee’s cases.

“But sworn statements are significant because they can be used to corroborate a party's claims,” Lavigne said. “They are witness statements, and potentially they can be used in depositions and/or if the persons making the statements are called as witnesses in court.”  

Voicemail messages seeking comment from Phillip George, the attorney representing Stafford, and from Derrick Freijomil, the attorney representing Montclair, were not returned.

Asked by email for his reaction to the sworn statements and the status of the investigation into Stafford, acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury replied, “I must say ‘no comment’ on both.” Sent the same questions, Mayor Sean Spiller did not immediately reply. 

A narrative with familiar echoes unfolds in the statement from Trembulak, the former animal shelter manager, who says she recognized the same torment she had felt when she read the complaints filed by Rao and Lee.

“When I read Juliet Lee’s complaint I felt ill,” Trembulak wrote in her statement. “When she described Stafford calling her to his office, screaming at her in front of co-workers and forcing her to go through her trash can, it took me back to the experience I had in that office.” 

Trembulak, who was a longtime Montclair employee, wrote that Stafford unleashed a verbal barrage at her at the first meeting she had with him, soon after he was appointed acting manager in 2014. (The Township Council voted to remove the “acting” part of his title in 2020.)

At a conference table filled with other township employees, Trembulak wrote, Stafford began screaming at her over an email he received from a volunteer critical of the shelter’s protocol for handling feral cats. 

“I was stunned by his vociferous verbal attack on me,” she wrote, adding that “when Stafford finished screaming at me, he ended the meeting. It seemed that the only purpose for it had been to humiliate me in front of other employees.”

She was so taken aback, she feared that after 16 years of service she would be fired after a single interaction with Stafford, her statement says.

Weeks later, she again found herself in Stafford’s crosshairs, this time with him screaming at her in front of a council member, her statement says.

“I felt as if he were verbally slapping my face,” Trembulak wrote. “I had never been treated with such disrespect and inhumanity. The councilperson said nothing. I felt humiliated again and began to cry. I stated to him ‘You have broken me,’ but Stafford kept screaming at me as I wept.”

Trembulak wrote that like Lee, she ultimately felt compelled to retire earlier than she had intended, by about four years, and move from the area “to preserve my emotional and physical health.”

“I accepted that I would have to relocate to North Carolina, where I could afford to live,” she wrote.

York, the former director of Senior Services, wrote that she had resigned because of Stafford’s abusive behavior. Two years removed from the job, she is still widely acknowledged as a lodestar among advocates for senior residents. She was responsible for all of Montclair’s senior citizen programming and support services, including Lifelong Montclair, an aging-in-place initiative she developed. 

Like the other women, York says in her statement that Stafford, a burly man with a barrel chest, would often impose himself physically.

“I suffered under the hostile work environment Stafford created for women in Montclair Township administration since he became acting township manager in 2015,” York wrote. “Stafford consistently demeaned me, attempted to physically intimidate me and sought to undermine my relationships with the Montclair community of senior citizens I served.”

York added, “He also attempted to impose capricious and unwarranted discipline, all of which eventually caused me to leave employment with Montclair.”

York says in her statement that Stafford would often summon her to his office to critique memos she had written to him, using a red marker to edit as she sat watching, or he would return the memos with his “corrections.”

“Stafford would often demean me by treating me as a schoolchild,” she wrote.

York, who has a Ph.D. in gerontology as well as an MBA, says that Stafford also found subtle ways of deriding her, including disparaging her credentials by calling her “doctor.”

“He did so despite me asking him to call me Katie, as did everyone else in the workplace,” she says in her statement. “I perceived his use of the formality in this way as depersonalizing, mocking and dismissive of my education.”

York’s difficulties with Stafford boiled up in September 2020, she wrote, as she and other administrators and staff were toiling to provide services for seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic. A return-to-office plan issued by Stafford would necessitate members of her small staff of three to cut their work week by half, threatening the services the department could provide, York’s statement says.

A draft of an email she wrote to inform seniors in Lifelong Montclair programs that a day of upcoming classes would have to be canceled while the township sorted through scheduling matters wound up with her being threatened with a two-day suspension. 

York’s statement says that in a dial-in meeting that included Sharyn Matthews, then the director of Human Resources, but not Stafford, she was told that her email to seniors contained “untrue” and “inaccurate information,” had been “inflammatory” and caused “fear and panic” within the senior community.

York was convinced that Stafford was behind the threat of suspension, she wrote, because he had used the same language in an email he sent to Ann Lippel, a leading advocate for senior citizens in Montclair. York says that Lippel forwarded Stafford’s email to her. 

In his note to Lippel, Stafford apologized for York’s email to seniors about the cancellation of class and for it causing “distress” for Lippel, York wrote in her statement.

“I well knew that Ms. Lippel did not need Stafford’s patronizing, and when she forwarded the email to me, she wrote ‘Read it when you are sitting down,’” York’s statement says.

In a conversation with Montclair Local on Tuesday, Jan. 10, Lippel confirmed York’s account and scoffed at Stafford’s note to her. 

“I was not distressed,” Lippel said. “We all trusted Katie. If she was doing this, there was good reason. She just wanted to protect us from chaos.”

The Township Council, in turning to an outside law firm to investigate the allegations in Rao’s lawsuit, apparently dismissed or overlooked the township’s earlier investigation by its affirmative action officer, Bruce Morgan, which concluded that Stafford had created a hostile work environment for the CFO. That report was finalized in August, nearly two months before Rao’s suit.

While the township did not release the findings of the affirmative action officer’s investigation or acknowledge them, Montclair Local reported on them after obtaining the report from a confidential source.

After Rao filed her lawsuit, Yacobellis made a public statement saying he believed the CFO's allegations and called for Stafford's removal.