Update: 9:30 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 10: The Montclair Township Board of Ward Commissioners has put aside a plan to redraw the township's ward maps, and a version adopted Jan. 12 will stay. 

Nearly a month ago, Montclair officials thought they knew how the township’s four wards would be shaped for the next 10 years — with a map that looked nearly the same as the one in place for the last decade. A quiet process had locked in the new boundaries, adjusted to account for a Census that showed about 2,000 more residents in the town than a decade before. 

It was minor news. Little had changed when, on Jan. 12, the Montclair Township Board of Ward Commissioners — a body made up of the four commissioners of the Essex County Board of Elections, plus Montclair’s township clerk — approved the new map. They’d met just once before, the week prior, part of a process that usually gathers little public attention, and that occurs along with ward commission meetings for other communities. 

Some blocks between Parkhurst Place and Claremont Avenue that had been in the Third Ward were set to move to the Second. The municipal clerk and the other commissioners signed off, and a notice of the tweaked boundaries was published on the township’s website.

Montclair officials say they were surprised by what happened next — and argue it risks gerrymandering concentrations of Black residents and less affluent residents into a single ward, at odds with decades of progress toward more fully integrating the township’s diverse community. 

The commission’s professionals told them the map would need to be revisited, to line up more closely with congressional district maps approved in December. Those maps largely keep Montclair’s Fourth Ward — where the township’s greatest concentrations of Black and brown residents live — in the majority-Black 10th Congressional District represented by Donald Payne Jr. Other parts of Montclair that had previously been in the 10th moved to the 11th Congressional District, one of the most affluent in the country, and about 75% white.

But the overlap between the Fourth Ward and Montclair’s portion of Payne’s 10th District wasn’t exact. So the result: Three new proposals for borders that line them up almost entirely, then tweak other borders to balance out populations among the wards. The commission will meet Thursday, Feb. 10, to review the matter further — and consider Montclair officials’ objections to the new versions.

“I think if you look at it from the lens of someone with a historical point of view, you can say … it looks like redlining. It looks like gerrymandering,” Councilman David Cummings, who represents the Fourth Ward, said. Each ward has a single representative on the governing body; the mayor and two other council members are elected at-large. 

Cummings’ predecessor on the council, Dr. Renee Baskerville, said she was stunned by the changes. Blocks in the northeast of the Fourth Ward would move into the Second — including areas around Ardsley Road, Tuxedo Road, Oxford Street and Cambridge Road. 

A new area northwest of the current Fourth Ward border would be carved out of the Second and added to the Fourth, with a portion of North Fullerton Avenue to its west, NJ Transit’s Montclair-Boonton tracks to its east (but a cutout from that area that keeps Sylvan Place in the Second).

To Baskerville’s observation as a former councilwoman who’d spent time going door-to-door, that meant the elimination of a lot of streets with a sizable portion of white or affluent residents from the Fourth. 

“I was just horrified when they did what was so blatant,” she said.

But Bethany O’Toole, chair of the county Board of Elections, says she’s seen those suggestions from multiple people in Montclair — and that race and economics have nothing to do with how the commission draws its maps.

The updated proposals, she said, are the product of firm Remington & Vernick Engineers’ analysis after getting new Census block data following the congressional redistricting. The commission doesn’t have data on those demographics, and wasn’t aiming to apply it, she said.

Montclair officials are challenging the revised maps, having hired legal counsel to review them and saying their reading of state law doesn’t show any requirement that ward maps line up with congressional districts. It’s a preference, not a rule, they say. 

“We insisted our attorney was right on this, and he had backup legal advice there,” Councilman Bob Russo, one of the at-large members of the governing body, says. “We’re not required, we’re urged to use the congressional maps.”

Section 40:44 of New Jersey’s statutes lays out rules for setting the borders. It says ward boundaries should be “formed of compact and contiguous territory.” And the most populous ward in a town can’t have a population that’s more than 10% bigger than the average population of all of the wards. That statute doesn’t appear to address continuity with congressional districts.

If the commission’s attorney agrees with Montclair, O’Toole said, the matter is settled — the Jan. 12 map will stay, without the changes that prompted concern among Montclair officials. As of Tuesday, she didn’t have that feedback, she said.

“I’ve never sat on a commission that [aimed to decide a map] contrary to the wishes of the municipality,” she said.

O’Toole said as an election commissioner, she aims to be impartial: “I want to be able to say I drew the lines that best serve the people of the town.”

The process leading to the current proposals has been one that gathered little public discussion. Meetings held on Jan. 5 and 12 where the first revised map was discussed, as well as one Feb. 3 where the new proposals were on the table, were formally advertised in the legals sections of newspapers, but those advertisements only said the meeting would be on Zoom — they didn’t specify a meeting ID or a URL to attend, but said to call the Board of Elections for more information. There didn’t appear to be any posting on the Board of Elections website about the meeting, where the board and Newark officials will also continue trying to work out objections that city’s representatives have with the latest proposal for their own map.

(Update: The board office Wednesday sent Montclair Local the Zoom link. The meeting can be accessed with meeting ID 868 2573 1516 and passcode 735096. The meeting begins at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10.)

A staffer at the board office told Montclair Local Tuesday he’d send a link to this Thursday’s session, but hasn't as of yet. Township spokesperson Katya Wowk said she hadn’t seen a link yet, either.

But Cummings and Russo have both attended sessions, advocating for the Jan. 12 version of the Montclair map. Baskerville sat in on the last meeting as well.

“Councilman Cummings and I have been trying to keep the Fourth Ward from being chopped up,” Russo said. 

He credited O’Toole for considering Montclair’s objections — for declining to adopt a map on Feb. 3 while looking into the matter further. 

“I hope and I believe they'll just leave the adopted map the way it is,” he said.

In the meantime, the proposals being floated are starting to get attention. Christa Rapoport, chair of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, said she’d received a complaint that the border changes “will dilute the Montclair Black vote.” The group was looking into that allegation, she said.

Ward Map Proposal by Louis C. Hochman on Scribd

“On the federal level, support for Section 5 the Voting Rights Act — which requires federal approval of voting laws in places with a history of discrimination —  has waned at the U.S. Supreme Court.  But here in Montclair, we remain vigilant to counter vote dilution of Blacks, a protected class,” she said. 

For Baskerville, the idea of concentrating Black or lower-income residents into one ward is a threat to Montclair’s strides toward inclusion. She envisions redlining — penning Black residents into neighborhoods through exclusionary lending techniques and other practices that identify those areas as less desirable or higher risk for banks. 

She worries about affordable housing being concentrated in the ward, or the racial and socioeconomic ramifications if Montclair ever puts aside its magnet school system and returns to neighborhood busing. 

Montclair had long been split between two congressional districts. In the debate over the recent realignment, some argued that putting all of Montclair in the richer, whiter 11th District would mean drowning out the voices of Black residents in the southern end 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. 

Payne, representing the 10th District, had come out in favor of the idea that ultimately became part of the final map — with most of Montclair’s Fourth Ward still on his turf.

Cummings, though, said that decision — and now the possible ward realignment to match it — “just doesn’t make sense.”

The map adopted on Jan. 12 would barely affect anyone in his ward, he said — maybe about 8 voters. 

“I think that the commission really needs to be taking a hard look at this,”  he said. The Jan. 12 map, he said, “was one we presented, that we thought essentially kept all of our wards as equal as possible.”

Russo said if the idea is to “mirror” the congressional map, it’s being done “through a cracked mirror.”

To make the new population counts work, Montclair’s Third Ward has to get bigger than it’s been for the last decade. The map adopted Jan. 12 would still leave it the smallest ward in Montclair. There would be 10,713 people in the First Ward, 10,282 in the Second, 9,759 in the Third and 10,195 in the Fourth.

None of the new proposals touches the population count in the First Ward. Because it’s not contiguous with the Fourth, it’s not affected directly by an attempt to line up the Fourth with the congressional map.

Just one of the three proposals results in a population of more than 10,000 in every ward. Wowk said if the township is forced to pick a preference among them, it’ll be that one, with populations most even among the wards.