As the Montclair Township Council released its 2023 calendar this week, with two fewer meetings on the slate and ambiguity around whether all meetings will be livestreamed, one thing was clear: the new year will not provide council members with a chance to ease in slowly.

They will have to address a meaty list of pressing issues, including at least two that are highly charged – the redevelopment plans for Lackawanna Plaza and what to do with a township manager currently on paid administrative leave, under a town-ordered investigation and facing two lawsuits accusing him of creating a hostile work environment for women.

In addition, the council will be awarding licenses for cannabis businesses, a task that comes with some urgency, given that many applicants have state conditional licenses that are expiring and some have begun paying rent on spaces that are sitting empty.

And all of this activity will be threaded through the rigors of deciding on a budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year that begins July 1. Typically, the council puts the new budget forward in April.

Under a schedule the council approved at its last meeting on Dec. 20 (though not posted on the town’s website until two weeks later), Montclair’s elected leaders will have to slog through all this business and more in 20 meetings, down from the 22 sessions it held last year. The first session is planned for Jan. 17, and as usual, the meetings, with three exceptions later in the year, will be held on Tuesdays. After an idea was floated to move the start time of the meetings up an hour, the sessions will typically begin at 7 p.m., though the council’s two February meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

The pieces to the calendar puzzle were locked in during a rare public display of deal making at the last meeting, who’s-on-first dialogue rolled into political horse trading. After Mayor Sean Spiller put forth a schedule that would have reduced the meetings by one, Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams objected to abbreviating the calendar at all. Then the bartering got going. Some council members said their personal schedules created conflicts, saying they needed this or that day free or a meeting rubbed from the calendar all together.

Somehow, out of the machinations came a pared down schedule.

Certainly, the Lackawanna issue alone will keep the council dug in, particularly once the Planning Board, working on an early February deadline, provides its input. Some on the council and in the community say the process has dragged on too long, while others argue it is being fast-forwarded. Council meetings rarely stay in their two-hour time slot. Debating the ramifications of a development project that is perhaps the largest in Montclair’s history will likely push some sessions near the midnight hour.

A push for more transparency is apparently tilting the council to livestream all its gatherings, including the “conference” meetings, which have typically not been available for viewing online. Four of the seven council members recently told Montclair Local that they favor the livestreaming of all the sessions. But the matter is in a kind of limbo, with eight of the 2023 meetings designated as conference, including one a month through April. In an acknowledgment that fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus or the flu may be keeping some in the public from coming to the Municipal Building to witness the meetings in person, the town recently announced that wintertime meetings – both conference and regular – will be livestreamed.

The thorniest problem may surround Township Manager Timothy Stafford, placed on paid leave by the council in October following the allegations leveled in a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by the town’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao. The suit describes a series of meetings where, she says, Stafford screamed and tried to intimidate her. A second lawsuit from a former female deputy township clerk depicted similar scenes.

An outside law firm approved by the council is now conducting an investigation into the accusations. Even if the firm’s findings exonerate Stafford, the council could potentially be confronted with an uncomfortable choice – returning Stafford to his job even as the lawsuits proceed in court.

Revisiting that issue alone will all but certainly extend the length of the meetings, testing the limits of any schedule the council puts forward.