Montclair Township Manager Timothy Stafford, suspended and officially on notice that he could lose his job, has issued a stark demand to the township: Pay him $1.2 million and he will step aside, or give him $500,000 and reinstate him.

The options offered by Stafford, confirmed by four members of the Township Council and a senior government official, were relayed to Montclair’s governing body by township attorneys in executive session at the March 14 council meeting.

The township’s attorneys delivered Stafford’s settlement offer to the council along with this advice – that to spurn a deal would expose the township to a lawsuit from Stafford and costly litigation, the four council members told Montclair Local.

Though Stafford is an at-will employee and can be fired without cause by the council, township attorneys had apparently asked Stafford’s lawyers to present them with a settlement offer, three of the council members said.

The revelation that the township is contemplating a settlement package for Stafford punctuates a controversy that was ignited last October when the township’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, accused Stafford in a discrimination lawsuit of “bullying, verbal abuse and threatening behavior.” The suit accuses Stafford of creating a hostile work environment for Rao and other women working in township government.

The four council members said that they did not know if the township had made a counteroffer but that they had been advised by Montclair’s attorneys that the township was actively negotiating with lawyers for Stafford, who was placed on paid administrative leave by the council on Oct. 25. 

In providing their individual accounts to Montclair Local, the council members insisted on anonymity, citing the confidential nature of information learned in executive sessions.

Three of the council members said they had been advised by the acting township attorney, Paul Burr, that liability insurance would indemnify the township for much of the cost.

Any deal would almost certainly stir anger among many in Montclair, who have repeatedly urged the council to oust Stafford.

“Oh, my God,” former Fourth Ward Councilor Renee Baskerville said when told about the negotiations. “I’m in disbelief. It's the most ridiculous thing that I've ever heard. Since he is at-will, I think he should have been out immediately. And that should have been end of story. Why negotiate with him? Who would do that?”

Mariana Horta, who often speaks in the public comments segment of council meetings, said she was “incensed.” 

“All the abuse she received from Stafford was in the context of her calling out either his incompetence or his dishonesty,” Horta said, referring to the chief financial officer. “In even considering a payment to Stafford they are basically funding his defense against Rao.”

As negotiations with Stafford proceed, the possibility of a public hearing is still on the table, the council members said. If held, the hearing would be conducted in the council chambers on the first floor of the Municipal Building.

Though such a scenario is regarded as unlikely, the council members said, New Jersey’s Faulkner Act gives Stafford the right to request a hearing. The law says it must be held no more than 90 days after the council’s vote – at its Feb. 7 session, which ran past midnight into Feb. 8 – that suspended Stafford and gave him notice of its intent to remove him. Stafford has until April 18 to make the request.

A hearing had been tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, March 28, the council members said, though the public had not been notified as required under New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act. It was scuttled a few days before. The council members who spoke with Montclair Local characterized the specter of a hearing as a “threat” or a “negotiation tactic” on the part of Stafford’s lawyer

Rao’s lawsuit, which also names the township as a defendant, includes accounts of desk-pounding tirades that left her “shaken by the ferocity of Stafford’s verbal abuse toward her.”

A second discrimination suit from Juliet Lee, a former deputy clerk, describes similar episodes, including Stafford’s ordering her to scavenge through a waste basket for papers as other employees watched. Two other former employees, both women, have provided statements in support of both lawsuits.

The council’s Feb. 8 decision to give Stafford notice took the form of a resolution that said “it is in the best interest of the township to go in a different management direction.” But rather than lending a sense of finality to an episode that has dragged on for more than five months, the issue has persisted, often sparking fierce exchanges between elected officials. Residents have repeatedly shown up in force at council sessions to question why the process has dragged on, with Stafford still on the payroll. 

For many it has exacerbated a belief that the council often operates without transparency and that concerns expressed during public comments often draw stony silence or answers draped in the language of lawyers.

"There's really one, maybe two burning questions I have,” said a resident at the council’s last meeting on March 27. “So I am willing to just ask those two questions and hopefully use the rest of my time to get an answer. The two questions are: Has Tim Stafford asked for a public hearing? And if not, why have you not voted to fire him yet?”

Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, running the meeting in place of the absent Mayor Sean Spiller, referred the question to Burr, the acting township attorney, and Gina DeVito, the assistant township attorney.

"Unfortunately, deputy mayor, this matter is in litigation or pre-litigation, so we are unable to comment,” Burr said. “It's a personnel matter as well, so we are unable to comment on the status of Mr. Stafford's employment."

Then Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo injected himself into the back-and-forth.

"Can I ask why we can't say anything to the public – that we can't tell the public and press anything?” an exasperated Russo said. “Can't we tell them, like, the man wanted a hearing, that he didn't want a hearing, that he wanted a hearing again, that we've postponed it two weeks? What's wrong with telling the public that? So I just did, OK.”

With the gallery applauding, Russo said, “Lock me up.”

Apparently referring to settlement discussions between the township and Stafford, Russo said, “The guy is stalling, prolonging and trying to beat us over the head for money. OK? This is the simple truth of what is going on.”

A second resolution, approved on Feb. 8, includes a clause that a council-commissioned investigation “did not find sufficient evidence to sustain a claim that Mr. Stafford’s conduct created an abusive or hostile work culture for female employees in the township.” 

While it is unclear why that clause was included in the second resolution, three of the council members who spoke with Montclair Local said that Burr had advised the council to include it. 

A picture emerged of an executive session that night in an upstairs conference room marked by on-the-spot wrangling, with the resolutions hastily patched together on a laptop. Montclair’s elected leaders voted on the resolutions without having been given the investigator’s full report, the four council members said. Instead the council members read only a summary of the report before returning to the chambers to cast their votes. Two of the council members said that the summary included a recommendation that Stafford receive help with anger management. 

The final tallies on the resolutions were both 5-0, with Spiller, Russo, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager and Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings voting yes. Hurlock departed early from the executive session, which went on past midnight. Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams had told colleagues months before that she would be unable to attend the meeting that night.

The executive session also included Burr, DeVito and Brian Scantlebury, the acting township manager. Derrick Freijomil, an outside attorney who is representing Montclair in the lawsuits, was in the conference for at least a portion of the meeting, two of the council members said.

Patrick Toscano, an attorney representing Stafford, sent a statement to Montclair Local.

“We have been advised,” Toscano wrote, “that the internal investigation/report that Montclair authorized be undertaken/issued by an independent, objective law firm has indeed resulted in a finding that our client be cleared entirely of any sexual harassment allegations that he has recklessly and haphazardly been accused of.

“So that said, we today ask – where exactly does Mr. Stafford now go to reclaim his professional and personal reputation?”

In a text, Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney representing Rao, said that the township’s decision to negotiate with Stafford left her “speechless.”

“The lack of transparency about the issues confronting, and decisions being made by, our elected town leaders is very disturbing,” Smith said. “Montclair residents deserve more information. Ultimately it’s taxpayer dollars and the administration of our town and democracy at stake.”

Emails seeking comment from Scantlebury, Burr and DeVito received no response, and Freijomil did not reply to a voice message.

The council’s power in deciding how to proceed with Stafford is largely influenced by lawyers for the state’s liability insurance plan, the council members said. They said they had been advised by Burr that the insurance plan’s lawyers would calculate whether the estimated risks and costs of a potential trial outweigh a settlement payment.

Should the council, in taking a final vote on Stafford’s future, decide to treat him as an at-will employee and fire him outright, it would sacrifice any insurance reimbursement, two of the council members said.