Two Montclair residents took to the microphone at the Feb. 21 Township Council meeting to accuse Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis of having a conflict of interest regarding the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment. Yacobellis energetically disputed the allegations.

The confrontation highlights the intensity of the feelings Montclairians have about Lackawanna Plaza, whether they favor the redevelopment project or oppose it.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, David Herron read, in part, from a New Jersey state statute, NJSA 40A:9-22.5. It says: “No local government officer or employee or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”

The law also prohibits officials from financial or personal involvement in anything where they would benefit directly or indirectly and as a result impair their judgment.

Herron contended that Yacobellis’ position as executive director of Out Montclair is a “direct conflict of interest” because the organization receives “monies, donations, financial support from individuals seeking to develop Lackawanna Plaza.”

“Therefore, you must – I stress must – recuse yourself from all communications concerning Lackawanna Plaza,” Herron said. “That would include no emails, no posts, no updates, no speaking to your constituents, no discussion with fellow council members, no lobbying, no meeting with developers or their experts, nada.”

He added that he had filed a formal complaint with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

Next at the microphone was Martin Schwartz, who said: “It's very troubling what David just said, councilor, very troubling. Because a week ago you just had a fundraiser at the home of the architect who was hired by David Placek, where monies were collected on your behalf from an individual who stands to gain from working on this project. You have a conflict of interest, sir.”

Schwartz implied that Yacobellis had tried to cover up a connection with the architect by sending the invitations out under the name of the architect’s wife. 

(But Schwartz acknowledged after the meeting that he was mistaken and that the fundraiser had been held at the home of someone who was not related to the architect and had a similar – but not the same – last name.)

“You have a conflict of interest,” Schwartz said to Yacobellis. Then he turned to Paul Burr and said, “Mr. Township Attorney, does not Mr. Yacobellis’ relationship with Out and the monies he received constitute a conflict of interest?”

Burr, the interim township attorney, said he would not respond during public comment.

That prompted Councilor David Cummings, whose Fourth Ward is the location of Lackawanna Plaza, to say: “This does need to be addressed tonight. So will you then be able to – after we get through public comment – address it?”

After some discussion among Cummings, Burr and Mayor Sean Spiller, the Yacobellis matter was added to the executive session agenda.

Yacobellis made a statement after the council members emerged from executive session.

“It's a lot to have one's integrity questioned, and I guess that just is something that comes with the territory,” he said. “And I don't blame people for being cynical about government, especially given the last few years. And frankly, it's why I decided to run in the first place was to be part of the change that I wanted to see in the world. So you know, unfortunately, I feel the need to just reinforce that I take this job very seriously. I take ethics very seriously. I take conflicts of interest very seriously.”

He said that he frequently sought guidance from attorneys to make sure that he is “always coloring within the lines.”

He invited any doubters to examine the financial records of his political committee and said that they would find no donations from Placek. He added that Placek had been a supporter of Out Montclair but has not been since Yacobellis became executive director.

“The one thing I can ask for is that we get the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “It's really alarming to hear accusations, to have the names of other people who have nothing to do with these situations implicated.”

Yacobellis added: “I just want to elevate and encourage that we elevate this discourse to a place where we're talking about what's really happening, what could really happen there, and what the impacts would be to the extent that we know and then we just continue to go through this process. None of us have voted for Lackawanna Plaza. We voted to introduce a plan so that it would go through this process. We're living through this process so that it can get put through the wringer. And we need to continue to let that happen.”

The next day the Out Montclair board of trustees released a statement saying that Yacobellis had served as the volunteer president of the organization prior to November 2022. But because the nonprofit group was growing so quickly, he was hired as a paid executive director.

“He has been essential to our success as an inclusive and visionary leader, skilled communicator, listener, organizer and doer,” the statement said. “We support him fully in his role as our executive director.”

The board added: “As legal and financial stewards of Out Montclair, we on the board of trustees have always taken legal and ethical compliance matters very seriously. From the start, Out Montclair has maintained and observed a strong conflict of interest policy, and the organization operates scrupulously in accordance with federal and state laws concerning nonprofit organizations.”

On Feb. 23, Yacobellis distributed an email newsletter in which he acknowledged that consideration of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment has been an emotional process for many people.

“The claims that a small, coordinated group of individuals have made regarding possible conflicts of interest are unfounded,” he said.

“I take the integrity of my role very seriously. I didn't raise my hand to do any of this to enrich my own life. I walked away from lucrative private sector career opportunities, feeling a calling to public service. I don't need to be an elected official or to seek higher office to feel any sense of validation, purpose or accomplishment in life.”

He concluded: “People who have concerns about Lackawanna Plaza deserve to have their very valid and heart-felt concerns addressed, not exploited. From the beginning, I've been committed to listening, doing the work, taking my time and acting responsibly. That work will continue.”

On Friday, Feb. 24, two members of the Out Montclair advisory committee resigned.

Aminah Toler, who is a part-time employee of Montclair Local, said in her resignation letter: “My involvement with various community organizations coupled with my current place of employment have led me to this decision. As I must ensure that my name, organizations I am part of and partner with remain in good standing. Not knowing the future of any grievances, violations, and/or ethical conflicts of interest violations that may arise, I am respectfully asking that my name be removed from the OM website as a community volunteer, effective today.”

Cathy Renna wrote in her resignation letter: “I resign immediately, after much thought and counsel and considering an ongoing lack of transparency, the appearance of ethical conflicts of interest and potential for more serious violations on the part of our executive director, Peter Yacobellis.”

Renna acknowledged that she had concerns about “the scope, size and impact” of the Lackawanna plan but that in general she supports development of the site.

She added: “I am not alone in demanding that the board of trustees immediately take a long, hard look at their fiscal and ethical responsibilities in having him at the helm. We are now a community divided, with many people who feel disappointed, let down and frankly tricked by a person we not only believed but believed in.”

Meanwhile, Schwartz maintains that Yacobellis has a conflict of interest because he says Placek supported the Pride Festival before the councilor became executive director of Out Montclair.

“You don’t collect money and then vote on their plan when you’re the board president,” Schwartz said.