Plan to reshape Montclair’s 4th Ward canceled — leaders said it was a blow to diversity
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
The geography of Montclair's four wards will stay nearly the same as it's been for the last decade, after the body responsible for considering changes to the map put aside a plan local leaders argued would be a blow to diversity — effectively gerrymandering Black and lower-income residents further in one ward.
The Essex County Board of Elections issued a notice early Thursday saying it would cancel a meeting scheduled for that afternoon, when three proposed new versions of Montclair's map were set to be considered by the Montclair Township Board of Ward Commissioners (a body made up of the Board of Election Commissioners, plus the municipal clerk).
No action on the new maps would be taken, and a version already adopted Jan. 12 (a breakdown on the township's website includes street-by-street listings) would stand. That version makes very few changes from the ward boundaries Montclair residents are accustomed to. Among them, some blocks between Parkhurst Place and Claremont Avenue that had been in the Third Ward were moved to the Second.
Linda von Nessi, the Board of Elections' clerk, sent Montclair officials word of the decision to keep the Jan. 12 maps late Wednesday afternoon. Newark officials, like their counterparts in Montclair, had objected to a proposal to reshuffle their maps as well; that proposal, too, was being put aside.
The notice sent to Montclair Local Thursday canceling the meeting said it was being done at the advice of the ward commission's counsel.
"We appreciate the chair of the commission responding to our concerns that Montclair ward lines not be distorted to create less diversity," Councilman Bob Russo said in a statement sent to Montclair Local late Wednesday. Russo, who serves in an at-large role on the governing body, had sat in on commission meetings, as did Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings. "We are 'one Montclair' and will not be divided for any political purpose."
Montclair leaders worried the newer proposals for the maps would have harmed diversity in the township's Fourth Ward — where the community's greatest concentrations of Black and brown residents already live.
Each of the three new versions would have moved several streets out of the northeast of the ward — including areas around Ardsley Road, Tuxedo Road, Oxford Street and Cambridge Road — and into the Second Ward. A new area northwest of the current Fourth Ward border would have been carved out of the Second and added to the Fourth, with a portion of North Fullerton Avenue to its west, and NJ Transit’s Montclair-Boonton tracks to its east (but a cutout from that area that keeps Sylvan Place in the Second).
Those and other adjustments would have shifted boundaries between the Fourth and its neighboring Second and Third Wards, but left the border between the First and Second ward untouched from the Jan. 12 version.
The result, local leaders say, would have removed more affluent residents from the Fourth. Dr. Renee Baskerville, a former Fourth Ward councilwoman, said to her observation that also would have meant removing many white residents from the Fourth. In a guest column for Montclair Local, she argued it would fly in the face of decades of progress toward racial integration in Montclair, and encourage "separate and unequal" treatment — opening the door to redlining (using exclusionary practices like unfair lending practices to cordon off minority neighborhoods).
She worried affordable housing would be concentrated in a Blacker, less-affluent Fourth, and that there could be implications if Montclair ever abandons its magnet school busing system and returns to neighborhood schools.
The matter had also come to the attention of the township's Civil Rights Commission. Its chair, Christa Rapoport, said the group was looking into an allegation that the new maps would dilute the Black vote. But Rapoport said this week the commission didn't think that would have been the case — saying new maps would have made it more likely, not less, to result in Black candidates for the Township Council — and wouldn't have objected to the new proposals.
Bethany O'Toole, chair of the county Board of Elections, told Montclair Local earlier this week that she'd seen such suggestions from objectors in Montclair — but that race and economics have nothing to do with how the commission draws its maps.
The updated proposals, she said, were the product of firm Remington & Vernick Engineers’ analysis after getting new Census block data following congressional redistricting that took place in December. The commission doesn’t have data on those demographics, and wasn’t aiming to apply it, she said.
The three now-abandoned proposals would have more closely lined up Montclair's Fourth Ward borders with the new borders of the 10th Congressional District, represented by Democrat Donald Payne Jr. The remainder of the township is now in the 11th district.
But Montclair officials, hiring outside counsel, argued no provision in law explicitly requires that ward maps and congressional district maps line up. O'Toole had told Montclair Local that if the commission's attorney agreed, the matter would be dropped and the Jan. 12 map would stand.
The debate over the congressional district lines itself, though, was deeply tied to race.
Montclair has long been split between two congressional districts. For the last decade, that put northern Montclair in the 11th District, currently represented by Democrat Mikie Sherrill. It's one of the most affluent districts in the country, and about 75% white. Southern Montclair was in Payne's 10th, a majority-Black and largely urban district.
Democratic and Republican delegations on the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission didn't disclose their draft maps before a final vote put the Democrats' version in place. But in hearings leading up to the vote and in sideline political conversations, the idea of putting Montclair entirely in the 11th was suggested. Some argued that putting southern Montclair in the richer, whiter 11th would mean drowning out the voices of Black residents in that part of town; when that’s done deliberately to make a voting block less effective, it’s known as “cracking.”
Others argued keeping them in the more urban 10th District would be “packing” — reducing their influence across districts by grouping them into one where there already are lots of people with similar demographics.
Rules meant to discourage both practices are also weighed against other considerations, for instance, a preference to maintain "communities of interest" — keeping voters with similar concerns in large enough blocks to have influence in their districts.
Payne, representing the 10th District, had said he'd accept the idea that ultimately became part of the final map — with most of Montclair’s Fourth Ward still on his turf. That does little to affect Democrats' political prospects in his district; it's likely to remain a stronghold for the party for the foreseeable future. But putting more of heavily Democratic Montclair in the 11th (along with changes in other towns) strengthens Democrats' prospects there, in what until recent years was reliably Republican territory.
But the borders of the 11th Congressional District and the Fourth Ward didn't line up exactly — prompting the discussion of more changes in Montclair. O'Toole had said the commission usually aims to line up political borders of congressional and ward districts, reducing complications and confusions for voters living there, but also didn't want to vote through a map over the objections of municipal leaders.
Any version of a revised map would have been required to balance out population counts among the wards after the latest Census showed about 2,000 new residents in the township over the last decade. The Jan. 12 version and all the more recent proposals all fell within the thresholds legally required for that balance.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in an email message to Montclair Local late Wednesday, said he'd also "sounded the alarm with our attorneys, clerk and county officials, objecting to what I consider outrageous new ward maps for Montclair." Yacobellis, who has been on vacation and out of the country, seemingly sent the message before being notified the new ward map plan was being abandoned.
"Just because we ended up with what I consider absurd, gerrymandered congressional lines in Montclair, doesn’t mean the same thing has to happen with our ward lines," he said.
Cummings, earlier this week, had told Montclair Local he thought the rationale behind carving out the Fourth for Payne's district didn't make any sense, and he didn't want to see the ward map follow suit.
He said Thursday he was grateful for the work Township Clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves and interim Township Attorney Paul Burr had done to oppose the new maps. He credited Russo for "being on this from the very beginning," and Baskerville for her advocacy.
"It's one of those times when I would say that the community came together," Cummings said.