Two Black Montclair firefighters say promotions test was slanted against them
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Update, Friday, Nov. 19: The Montclair Township Council will hire outside counsel to investigate the allegations described below, Councilman Peter Yacobellis has said.
Two Black Montclair firefighters have alleged recent promotional exams were stacked against them to favor other candidates — prompting demands from the township's Civil Rights Commission and Montclair's NAACP chapter for an immediate investigation.
Thursday evening, Township Attorney Ira Karasick confirmed to Montclair Local by email that communications from both groups on the matter had been received and were being reviewed. He said the allegations involve confidential personnel matters and that "any public statement, if there is one, regarding the township’s response will not come from me."
And Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams, one of the governing body's liaisons to the Civil Rights Commission, told the CRC as well as Montclair Local Thursday night there is "widespread support" among council members "to have a professional and thorough investigation into the allegations." Councilman Peter Yacobellis told Montclair Local he and Price Abrams worked together on that statement after consulting with several of their colleagues. Yacobellis and Councilman Bob Russo also serve as liaisons to the CRC.
Cary Chevat, communications secretary for the Montclair NAACP, said the chapter is also waiting on information about an investigation into a separate allegation that a "senior township employee" made racially insensitive remarks to chapter members.
If the firefighters' allegations prove to be true, chapter President Roger Terry said in an emailed statement, "there appears to be a troubling pattern of violations of civil rights within the township management."
Christa Rapoport, chair of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, had emailed Township Council members and Mayor Sean Spiller Monday, saying the matter needed an immediate inquiry and that no promotions should take place until an investigation and report are concluded. Prior to the CRC meeting, she said, she hadn't heard any confirmation such an investigation would take place — "It's been silence."
Rapoport stressed her email to the township wasn't a request, but a demand.
"There are serious factual allegations being raised. Enough's enough. Why wouldn't you demand that?" she said.
Yacobellis, in an email to Montclair Local earlier this week, had called the allegations "concerning."
"I have asked our township manager and township attorney to confirm what steps they will take to look into this matter and to clarify what, if any, role the council can play in supporting said request given our form of government," Yacobellis said in the email.
Montclair has a Council-Manager form of government, in which a township manager has executive authority over municipal employees.
Terry, in his statement, said the NAACP received the "credible allegations by two African American Officers of the Montclair Fire Department" of racial bias, and forwarded them to the CRC. Rapoport said while her commission has jurisdiction to investigate the matter, it doesn't have the resources — and that the township should hire an outside attorney to conduct an inquiry.
The firefighters allege several factors were made part of the recent exams' 100-point scoring rubric that hadn't been used for past exams, Rapoport said. The firefighters say they were penalized for decades-old minor disciplinary incidents, and absences including ones for medical purposes taken after giving advance notice, she told Montclair Local.
"Discipline from 20 years and 30 years was selectively considered to negatively impact promotional scores of only of African American candidates," Rapoport wrote in her message to township officials, describing the allegations. "This action has had a disparate impact on these candidates. Acquiescence by the town human resources manager should be examined."
Her email to the township also says the firefighters allege "inadequate administration and supervision of the examination." Rapoport told Montclair Local at least one firefighter says he was tested based on his responses to a hypothetical scenario, but given information on a different scenario than the one used for evaluation.
"[The allegation is that] the African Americans were given the wrong scenario and then graded on that. How does that happen?" Rapoport said to Montclair Local. "These are all allegations that have to be confirmed."
And the firefighters allege Montclair's fire chief, John Herrmann, failed to "recuse himself from his son's Montclair Fire Department promotional activities," Rapoport said in the email to township officials.
She Montclair Local the firefighters also allege they weren't given any points for seniority, but had been during past promotional exams.
A June 30 memorandum from Township Manager Timothy Stafford (provided to Montclair Local by Rapoport) outlines the rubric to be used for exams for the ranks of lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. There are 25 points for a written examination, 25 for an oral exam, 35 for a "practical evolution demonstration" in which a candidate demonstrates skills and information for responding to a scenario, and 15 for the candidate's job performance history.
Under the last category, points can be deducted for absenteeism or disciplinary incidents, and can be added for commendations, job-specific certifications beyond those assigned by the department, and educational history. The rubric does not issue points for seniority.
Montclair Local has not, however, seen documentation rubrics used for prior exams.
A public records request sent to the township Wednesday for scoring criteria for recent and past exams, as well as for candidates' scores and other related materials, has not yet been answered.
Herrmann has not yet responded to a phone message left Thursday morning. Update, Friday, Nov. 19, 10 a.m.: Stafford had been out of town for the League of Municipalities' annual conference in Atlantic City this week, but responded Friday morning to a message from Montclair Local saying he was working on answers to some questions the newspaper had sent him the day before.
Montclair Local additionally left messages by phone or email with each member of the council and Spiller late Thursday Russo acknowledged receiving the messages but weren't immediately available to speak and said they'd be in touch Friday. Councilwoman Robin Schlager said she couldn't comment on the matter.