MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council’s January 19 meeting had a light agenda, as has been the norm in recent weeks, but public comment continued to be long and robust. This time, however, public comment was more about issues other than rent control, as Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham allowed the rent-control ordinance to finally go into effect on January 15, when he upheld the Montclair Township Clerk’s office’s rejection of inadequate petitions for a referendum on the issue.
Mayor Sean Spiller opened the meeting with a “State of the Township” address, beginning with a lament that he was unable to accentuate the positive a good deal due to the reality of COVID-19. He acknowledged how the virus has upended the local economy and shuttered numerous eateries and stores, how it has so far killed 62 residents, and how it has strained social bonds and isolated many members of the community. He did offer some hope in noting that 1,320 residents had recovered from COVID, grants have been awarded to businesses to help keep them going, and that COVID vaccines are finally rolling out. Mayor Spiller added that he expects things to improve more swiftly with the incoming Biden administration in Washington as a partner. “Montclair has responded with strength, caring and resilience for which our community is known,” he said. “We are relying on one another like never before, and we can and will emerge stronger.”
Mayor Spiller also sought to address the storming of the U.S. Capitol, which took place a day after the last council meeting, saying it was necessary to continue to stand against such attacks and “protect and nurture” democratic values. He also thanked Montclair‘s congressional delegates, Representatives Mikie Sherrill and Donald Payne, Jr. and Senator Robert Menendez, for “standing fast” against the insurrectionists.
Public comment on the rent-control ordinance was largely centered on gratitude to the mayor and council for their own act of standing fast for nine months while the injunction against it was litigated in court pending a possible referendum. There were pro-referendum dissenters, though, with one caller saying that thousands of residents who signed the petition were wrongfully denied the opportunity for a vote, and he declared the battle to be “far from over.” But tenants’ activist Ahava Felicidad said that the Montclair Property Owners Association and its allies had had nine months to make their case and collect signatures for a referendum and had still not succeeded. She believed that the rent-control ordinance would have won approval with the voters had a referendum been held.
While other callers continued to push for further restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers, other callers brought up local issues with national implications. Several callers expressed an interest in diverting funds from the police department to social-welfare concerns, such as using mental-health experts to intervene with people with mental-health issues rather than the police. Resident Abraham Dickerson called in to say that using mental-health experts would be more cost-effective in those instances. Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, responding to such callers, said that the council’s Public Safety Committee continues to have productive discussions with Police Chief Todd Conforti in advance of the introduction of the 2021 budget, and he said the chief is very open-minded to how public safety could be reformed. Councilor Cummings did say, however, that he has full confidence in the police department, and he lauded its performance in protecting and serving the community.
And in response to another caller asking about the body-camera legislation passed by the New Jersey state legislature appropriating $50 million for mandated police body cameras and maintenance and why Montclair would need to spend money on it, Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo pointed out that the state mandate may only be partially funded at best due to other necessary expenditures. He added that he supports body cameras for the police to protect both officers and the public. Councilor Russo said that it was impractical to simply advocate for defunding the police because more equipment means more policing, or that the police could get funding from someplace else.
Other national issues permeated the public-comment portion of the meeting, such as insistent calls for reopening the public schools for in-person learning, with many callers saying that remote learning was having a detrimental effect on students’ ability to learn. And the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol hit home when many residents demanded that the township investigate charges that a Montclair firefighter may have been involved in the takeover of the Capitol, or at least have demonstrated outside the Capitol. Township Manager Tim Stafford said that that was a personnel matter under his jurisdiction, and he assured residents that he took these charges “very, very seriously” and that his office is already looking into it. But he added that he had seen a doctored version of an FBI array of photos of those suspected of storming the Capitol that added a township employee’s picture, which he condemned as forcefully as he condemned the Capitol riot and all involved in it.
The council passed a consent agenda of resolutions that, among other things, authorizes a professional services agreement with Jason Santarcangelo as special counsel for abandoned and vacant property matters for 2021, awards a contract for improvements for the Lorraine Well treatment facility to the Rapid Pump and Meter Service Company, and awards a contract for the replacement of water mains in Stonebridge Road and in the North Mountain Avenue/Godfrey Road neighborhood to the John Garcia Construction Company. The council passed another resolution supporting the passage of the New Jersey Reproductive Freedom Act – another example of national affairs affecting the meeting – and also passed a resolution designating the Star-Ledger and the Montclair Times as the official newspapers for 2021. Councilor Russo asked why the Star-Ledger was still an official newspaper for township news, and Manager Stafford explained that this was because, as a daily paper, the Star-Ledger could get news of the township’s actions out far more quickly than the local weeklies.
Manager Stafford also announced that the Just Jake’s restaurant on Park Street was teaming up with the Montclair Fire Department for a food drive to help Toni’s Kitchen from now until February 12. Residents are encouraged to donate breakfast items such as oatmeal and cereal bars, pasta, rice, tuna, soup, nuts, and dried fruit, as well as pasta sauce and peanut butter in plastic containers, all within their expiration dates. Food can be brought to the fire stations at Valley Road and Harrison Avenue or the main station at Pine Street. Also, Mayor Spiller said that he would host a town hall with Dr. Chris Pernell on COVID-19 and the vaccine on Wednesday, January 27.