Resident to Montclair Council: ‘There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in town. Get it together.’
As Township Council members returned to the council chambers after a 2½-hour executive session on Tuesday, July 26, Township Manager Tim Stafford rounded the dais and removed a handwritten sign taped under the mayor’s nameplate that read: “RUDE.”
On Monday morning, the township sent out an email blast to residents warning that an executive session — where council members go behind closed doors to discuss such confidential items as personnel matters, litigation or contracts — would be held before the public comment section of the meeting.
About 35 residents attended the meeting to voice their feelings on a variety of issues, including why the council should limit future development heights, the closure of two of Montclair’s three public pools as temperatures soared toward 100 degrees, the lack of a senior services director for over six months and when the township will approve a medical marijuana dispensary’s expansion to recreational use.
But no one who showed up on the hot July night had any idea how long they would have to wait to be heard.
About 20 minutes into the meeting — at about 7:20 p.m. — after reading some proclamations, the council left the council chambers for an executive session upstairs while residents waited outside, in the corridor or in the chambers for the council to return and for the public portion of the meeting to begin.
By 9:20 p.m., about half the residents had left, to relieve babysitters they had paid for a few hours, to head to night shift work or simply to go home to get some rest. That’s when former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz said he texted the mayor and each council member: “There are many people out here to speak on multiple issues. Some have had to leave. This is disgraceful. You call an executive session after the council hearing. Not during. Is this a tactic to avoid criticism? Shame.”
Five minutes later Bob Russo, a former mayor and a council member for more than 20 years, stormed out of the executive session, furious, past the waiting residents, declaring he was leaving. A text message from Montclair Local to Russo the next day asking why he left the meeting has not been returned. (He did, however, send a photo of himself and a Starbucks worker, saying he was “supporting their push to unionize.”)
At about 9:45 p.m., the council returned, with Mayor Sean Spiller noting that the timing of the executive session had been publicized and that “unfortunately with scheduling we had to take care of urgent matters in executive session. ...We appreciate everyone’s patience,” Spiller said to the public.
But resident Adriana O’Toole wasn’t having it.
“Don't take this personally, but this has been a very rude evening,” she said. “Whatever you were doing could have been very important and I’m sure it was, but the three minutes we would have spent speaking would have taken less time than for you to go up and have your meeting.”
O’Toole also told the council that she was “very disappointed” in the way it had been working together and told them to “get it together.”
“Morale in town hall is very low,” she said. “You may know that, too. You’ve got to be able to figure it out. Who's running things? There’s a lot dissatisfaction in town. ... Maybe you need a counseling session.”
An email sent to Spiller, who sets and can change the order of the agenda, on July 27 from Montclair Local asking why he moved the executive session to the middle of the meeting and before public comment has not been answered.
It’s not the first time residents have felt closed off from voicing their opinions on issues during council meetings. And it’s also not the first time the mayor has called for an executive session in the middle of the meeting or moved public comment to the end of the meeting.
In January, tennis enthusiasts came out to speak on the loss of all tennis courts at Rand Park to make way for an expanded skate board park, only to have the vote on the resolution take place before the public comment portion of the meeting.
“What is the point of public comment happening after the decision is already made?” David Greenbaum, who had come to speak about the loss of the tennis courts, told Montclair Local at the time. “It goes against the rights of citizens to be heard.”
New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Law requires public discussion periods before ordinances are voted on for final adoption. It doesn’t require the same for resolutions, which are typically voted on through a consent agenda – in which one vote is taken on a group of resolutions. The items are considered routine, though a council member can request that a resolution be pulled out for further discussion and a separate vote.
The agenda as published prior to that January meeting originally called for the council to hold its usual public comment period before the vote. State law requires a general comment period at some point during the governing body’s meeting, though it doesn’t mandate when. In the past, the public comment period was typically held at the beginning of council meetings.
At the time of the skate park vote, Spiller said that a number of younger children who had lobbied for the facility had tuned in to see the outcome of the vote, and he felt it was important for them to witness the workings of their local government.
“We didn’t want to keep them waiting,” he said. “We wanted them to see it moved.”
Also at that meeting, Spiller moved that the council go into closed session to discuss a litigation matter before public comment. At the time all meetings were virtual, and due to a technical problem the council returned within minutes to continue the public meeting.
At a Nov. 1, 2021, conference meeting and a Nov. 15, 2021, regular meeting, public comment was also moved to after the consent agenda. At those meetings, Township Council members discussed a proposed agreement to make some funding for the Montclair Public Library contingent on more municipal oversight. (To date, that proposal has never been moved for a vote.)
Public comment was opened 24 minutes into the Nov. 1 meeting, and an hour and 28 minutes into the Nov. 15 meeting. On Jan. 18, public comment was held an hour and 30 minutes into the meeting.
Russo has said in the past that although there is no fixed rule or schedule for public comment, and meeting lineups have changed over time, he strongly believes that it should be offered early in the meeting as an opportunity for residents to air their concerns and question the mayor and council, and before the governing body goes into executive session.
West Caldwell, Glen Ridge, Cedar Grove, Nutley and Verona typically have two public comment portions at their meetings, according to their minutes. One session is held on the consent agenda before it gets a vote, and another is held toward the end of each meeting for general public comments.
At the July 26 meeting, Lani Sommer-Padilla reminded the council that hundreds of people have signed a petition launched in May by two residents — Eileen Birmingham and Courtney Redfern — to reinstate livestreaming of all its meetings, and to let participants again call in for comment.
“Tonight would have been the perfect night to have the option of virtual comments,” Sommer-Padilla said. “So many are concerned about so many issues, so I suggest reinstate what you had been doing just a few months ago. It’s not hard. You have the ability to do it. It’s 2022. It’s not fair to the residents who have legitimate concerns and wanting to be involved in making this town better.”
As of Aug. 2, the petition had received 477 signatures.
Public: Bring virtual meetings back
From March 2020 until May of this year, all township meetings — including both conference and regular council meetings — were livestreamed on Montclair’s YouTube station and on TV34. What residents found convenient was that they could also participate in the public portion of the council meeting by calling in. But that ended in May.
When in-person meetings resumed, members of the public could comment only in person, and broadcasting of all conference meetings ceased. The change was announced by Councilman Peter Yacobellis just hours before a May 3 conference meeting.
Yacobellis has said that Township Manager Stafford made the decision not to livestream the May 3 meeting based on the tradition of not recording conference meetings, as historically agenda items were not voted on during those meetings. But at the May 3 meeting, the council voted through a resolution in support of medical marijuana dispensary Ascend’s plan to expand to recreational sales, and introduced an ordinance amending Montclair’s cannabis law to allow for three retailers, instead of the two originally planned.
Other ordinances and resolutions up for a vote that night included the Montclair Center Business Improvement District budget, an amendment to a 2020 bond ordinance to include an additional project and an ordinance renaming the Business Set-Aside Program the Diversity Inclusion Program.
At the May 17 council meeting, Councilman William Hurlock said he was under the impression that hybrid meetings were not allowed by law and asked the township legal department to research it. But both League of Municipalities and Department of Community Affairs officials told Montclair Local it’s legal to hold hybrid meetings with both in-person attendees and in which some council members or some members of the public participate remotely.
“There are parents that depend on getting child care to attend,” Birmingham said when she launched the petition. “There are those who are immune-compromised and don’t feel safe. Seniors that are homebound. For the last two years, it’s been accessible and transparent for all.”
Russo, Yacobellis and Councilwoman Robin Schlager have told Montclair Local that they would be in favor of allowing call-in comments and livestreaming the conference meetings.
The council would need at least four members to approve livestreaming and to allow for call-in public participation, Yacobellis has said.
Other council members have not returned an email July 27 seeking comment on the possibility of virtual meetings and call-ins.
Councilman David Cummings apologized to the residents for the long wait at the end of the July 26 meeting.
“We can handle it a little better,” he said.
The Board of Education, although back to in-person meetings, continues to livestream and still allows for call-in comments.
At the July 26 council meeting a resident, Melanie, who declined to give her last name, told the council: “If you choose not to make these changes, you send a clear message to residents that you don’t actually believe in participatory democracy for Montclair and don’t really value our opinions.”
Although Padmaja Rao, Montclair’s chief financial officer, and township financial adviser Bob Benecke gave presentations on the 2022 municipal budget this year, notably missing for the first time were the department heads and their respective presentations.
Lily Cui of Montclair Beyond Policing has been vocal at council meetings about what she calls a lack of transparency in the budget process, not just on police funding but on library and senior services as well.
In 2021 she wrote in a letter to Montclair Local: “To call the budget process opaque would be an understatement. … When the time finally came to propose the budget on April 6, most of the departments made presentations, but not all — just the ‘most important.’ No numbers were presented, and very few specifics. Notably absent was the library department. Any library users hoping to hear a coherent account of the massive defunding this crucial public service has undergone were disappointed.”
This year at the March 15 council meeting, when the budget was introduced, Birmingham called out what she says is an “opacity” in Montclair’s budget hearings and questioned if the department heads would be making presentations, as those presentations were not noted on the agenda. She pointed to neighboring towns, like Maplewood, that were in the process of holding department presentations as part of their budget process.
“It helps residents to understand how money is being spent,” she said.
An email sent to Spiller from Montclair Local on March 16 asking about department head presentations was referred to Stafford. An email sent to Stafford via Communications Director Katya Wowk asking if presentations would take place and if not why, was never answered. Those presentations never occurred.
In the spring and early summer, residents sought answers on many issues that ultimately fell under the township manager’s purview, but residents say remained unanswered: When would the construction begin at Nishuane and Essex parks that was detaining the opening of the pools, what was the holdup on the opening of the much anticipated Glenridge Avenue/Midtown deck, why did tennis courts remain closed at Rand Park as construction of a skateboard park stalled, why did stop signs appear on Glenridge Avenue, then suddenly disappear, and when would an interim senior services director be appointed to a department whose leader left six months ago?
In June, after a four-month delay in the opening of the Glenridge Avenue/Midtown deck, business owners and Montclair Center BID officials spoke out at the council meeting, demanding answers about the delay.
Craig Cornell, owner of Diamond Bicycle Montclair, which backs into the garage, told the council that his business was down 70% since construction on the garage started in 2021.
“We have had zero communication from the township on what the holdup is,” Cornell told Montclair Local before the meeting. “I have sent numerous emails and called the mayor and township manager. They won’t even respond.”
At the June council meeting, Cornell, visibly upset, asked Stafford why he never responded to his numerous emails.
“It’s sad,” Cornell said. Stafford apologized “if his emails were never returned.”
At the time Jason Gleason, BID’s executive director, told Montclair Local that the township’s “lack of planning and communication with respect to the project over the past two years demonstrates a complete disregard for our businesses, property owners and residents” and has led to confusion, frustration and anger among business owners.
“Six months have now passed since the deck has been substantially complete, and no further work has been discernible. Six months have also passed without any effective communication — good news or bad,” he said.
An Open Public Records request by Montclair Local revealed that the garage had failed inspection in January due to the alleyway between Diamond Bicycle and Trend Coffee & Teahouse not being ADA-accessible.
When asked at the meeting why the issue of the alleyway was never flagged, Stafford said he couldn’t explain, but that the township is looking into the oversight “so that it doesn’t happen again.”
Spiller said at the June meeting that the “key piece” to the issue is better communication, and that he believes Stafford got “that loud and clear.”
At the July 26 meeting, Gleason said that communication concerning the garage has been better.
But Gleason, who has served on various advisory committees, including the Parking and Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee, did question the lack of such committees, which were once prominent in Montclair and elicited community input.
“It seems like the council at the time wanted to embrace the brain trust, and it’s a mighty, mighty brain trust, right?... Nobody’s listening; no table is built for us to have that discourse,” he said. “Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?”
The same night a resident who did not identify himself by name called out council members on what he said was their “no reaction.”
“It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “There’s all these issues and complaints and there’s Teflon, no reaction. ... And the fact that the public is not able to participate and you have people with three kids at home waiting to speak for three hours, it’s mind-boggling.”
About four hours and 20 minutes into that meeting, after being prompted by Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams, Stafford did announce that a “senior services employee” had been tasked with taking on additional duties to fill the gap of the missing director, but did not identify the person.