MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council had a small agenda for its June 23 meeting, the final meeting of the lame-duck council under Mayor Robert Jackson – again, held without the public physically in attendance due to COVID-19 – with nine resolutions under a consent agenda.
Concerns with several measures from Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, however, caused the resolutions to be voted on individually, as she had particular questions about five of them. And the second resolution, which involved police funding, caused special concerns among some residents in light of the debate over police reform in the United States.
Resolution R-20-099 was a measure to authorize Montclair to apply for a $60,000 grant with a local match of $307 million for the Montclair Police Department under the Safe and Secure Communities Program. The resolution specified that Montclair “wishes to participate to the fullest extent possible with the Department of Law and Public Safety and is authorized to accept the Subaward.” The Attorney General would receive funds on behalf of the applicant, and the Division of Criminal Justice, which is an arm of the Attorney General’s office, would be responsible for the receipt and review of any such applications for the funds referred to.
Many Montclair residents, aware that the police receive greater amount of funds than any other municipal department, reportedly expressed alarm and outrage over the resolution, believing that it would increase the police’s budget. Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford took it upon himself as soon as the meeting began to clarify the intent of the resolution as soon as the meeting began.
Manager Stafford said that the resolution amends an earlier resolution passed on May 19, R-20-090, which is an application for the same $60,000 grant with a local match of $205.9 million. The purpose of the amending resolution, he explained, was to offset the cost of salaries and benefits of a lieutenant and a detective already employed by the police. The purpose is to combat crime in the township with current personnel, not to add personnel, and there is no cost to the township beyond current police expenditures.
“What makes this resolution necessary,” Manager Stafford said, “is that in previous years, the state accepted a resolution stating that the local matching funds were the existing officers’ salaries. This year, despite previous assertions to the same by the state that that format would be acceptable, the state has now requested that the township include the cost of the existing benefits as well.” In public comment, he had to re-iterate the intent of the resolution for a concerned resident who called in.
When the resolution came up for a vote, Dr. Baskerville asked if at least one of the positions was connected to community policing due to input from community meetings in which residents expressed a return to community police program. Manger Stafford said that it was, noting that the lieutenant is the commander of the Community Services Unit and the detective works with the unit on many occasions. Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo – the only council member taking part in the meeting from home – added that Montclair has gotten this money for years, and that this money is especially for community policing.
Mayor Jackson said it was lamentable that the tragedy of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis cast an unfair shadow on Montclair’s police department, and he stressed that the Montclair police has never had any issues regarding abuse of power or police brutality. “Our record is a good one,” he said. “I think the attitude and the culture of the department is exemplary.” Mayor-elect / Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller added that the township, while not perfect, has been working hard to ensure a high standard in policing. The resolution passed unanimously.Dr. Baskerville had a problem with a resolution authorizing a professional services agreement with Neglia Engineering, saying that she did not find the service from Neglia to be exemplary, especially when there were two resolutions on the agenda that required professional services from other engineering groups as well. Other members of the council said that the different companies specialized in different areas of expertise, such as water services and environmental engineering. Dr. Baskerville was unmoved by this explanation; she cast the sole dissenting vote against the resolution.
Dr. Baskerville asked about a resolution to authorize a grant for various improvements to Church Street and South Park Street, along with Trinity Place. She asked if this was an addition to the fountain area at Church Street and Valley Road, and Manager Stafford said it was, elaborating that it was a grant application through the New Jersey Department of Transportation. When she wanted to know who determined that the grant funds would go to Montclair Center, Manager Stafford said that the recommendation was made by the Finance Committee, and Mayor Jackson said that the grant rules focus on that area. She also questioned a water services agreement resolution with Gannett Fleming as to whether the engineering firm would continue to provide services on the parking deck, and Manager Stafford said yes. Also, she asked about a sewer services agreement resolution with Suburban Engineering in regard to whether it had anything to do with sewage backup infiltrating people’s houses. Manager Stafford said it did not pertain to that, and Dr. Baskerville explained that she had gotten five e-mail complaints about sewage backup. Deputy Township Manager Brian Scantlebury asked Dr. Baskerville to forward the e-mails to his office, and she promised to do so. All three of these resolutions were passed unanimously, as were the four resolutions Dr. Baskerville did not comment on – resolutions authorizing the tax collector to prepare third-quarter tax bills, accepting maintain responsibility for a cross walk and Lincoln and Elm Streets, and authorizing a contract for fire apparatus maintenance, as well as the bill resolution.
In public comment, Township Attorney Ira Karasick fielded questions about the ongoing lawsuit by landlords against the township’s rent-control ordinance. William Scott of the Montclair Housing Commission called in to ask about the progress of the court case, and he said that there was hearing on a permanent injunction earlier this month, but the judge hasn’t set or decided on a hearing date, and he is awaiting a ruling from the court; a temporary injunction against the ordinance is still in effect. Toni Martin of the Tenants Organization of Montclair called in to express concern about the suit, asking about a petition to have the ordinance overturned and if the clock has begun on that as an official challenge. Karasick said that the judge will rule on it later and that “the clock has not begun” as a result of the temporary injunction. The worst case, he said, was a possible initiative or referendum on the ordinance. If it is on the ballot in November in a worst-case scenario, he said, “you’ll have a lot of work to do . . . and so will we.”
In his final report to the outgoing council, Manager Stafford that the Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs is working to safely open township pools and going through “a real thicket” of guidelines to implement practices that will allow the pools to open; he hopes to have an announcement on the matter soon. Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager asked about an update on camp and sports programs, as well as the reopening of the animal shelter. The manager said that the guidelines for pools applied to both the camp and sports programs and added that the Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs was working with state and local health officers to set up programs that will comply with guidelines. He could not give Councilor Schlager a firm reopening date for the animal shelter.
Toward the end of the meeting, Dr. Baskerville spoke again, praising Montclair residents for their new-found activism against racial injustice and bringing up the as-yet unresolved court case involving uncounted ballots in the Montclair mayoral election between herself and Mayor-elect Spiller, saying that it was necessary to ensure the counting of 1,086 outstanding ballots, adding, “We’ll see what happens.” A hearing on the case is planned for September; the outstanding votes could change the outcome. Mayor-elect Spiller did not comment on the issue.
Mayor Jackson ended the meeting with a recapitulation of the achievements of the council has led for eight years, citing new apparatuses forth fire department, a fund balance that went from $3.3 million in 2012 to $17 million in 2019, a triple-A bond rating, the rehabilitation of Edgemont Porter and Yantacaw Brook parks, and eight hundred new parking spaces in Montclair Center to go on line in 2021. He lamented that his council hasn’t gotten enough credit for its accomplishments, and he wished that the new council gets “a fairer shake” from the print media.
“There’s good things going on in this community that should be talked about and should be heralded, and it’s not done,” he said. “It’s a disservice to the community, it’s a disservice to people who are up here [on the council], and it continues it’ll be disservice to the new group [of council members] that comes up.”