MONTCLAIR, NJ - The candidates for the Montclair mayor’s office and six Township council seats had their last forum on May 7, which was sponsored by the Montclair Public Library. Peter Coyl, the Montclair Public Library’s director, moderated the forum through GoTo.com, an online webinar platform, in recognition of the ongoing threat of COVID-19. The election is Tuesday, May 12, with voting by mail-in ballot only.
There are thirteen candidates for the mayoral and council seats across two slates, Your Voice, Montclair (YVM) and Montclair 2020 Progress In Action (M20PIA), with seven YVM candidates for each position and six M20PIA candidates for all but one of the positions, the exception being the Fourth Ward Councilor position. YVM’s David Cummings is running unopposed for that seat. A fourteenth candidate, Carmel Loughman, is running for a councilor-at-large seat as an independent. Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville and Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller are the mayoral candidates for YVM and M20PIA, respectively. Of the fourteen candidates, YVM Third Ward Councilor candidate Maggie Joralemon did not take part in the forum.
The two mayoral candidates led off the forum with opening statements. Dr. Baskerville declared that she had made it a goal in Montclair to enhance the lives of residents and visitors alike in her years of service, saying that as mayor she looked forward to “building a beloved community of humankind.” Councilor Spiller said he has been hearing from residents about COVID-19 and how it has affected them but also heard about environmental and financial issues, with many people expressing hope that Montclair maintains its edge in those areas. He touted the work he has done as a councilor in pushing for energy aggregation and reducing debt while keeping taxes low. He said he hoped to guide Montclair out of the pandemic and added, “We gotta figure out how we do that smartly, carefully, how we do that with everyone’s health in mind, but also the support we need as a community.”
The councilor-at-large candidates made their cases next, with YVM’s James Cotter saying that change should be balanced with respect and consideration for the residents, who make Montclair “a diverse and dynamic place to live,” promising “common sense solutions” to issues that come before the council. He criticized much of the development that has recently taken place, saying that future development ought to benefit residents more than developers. His slate mate Peter Yacobellis was especially enthusiastic in advocating for his own candidacy, saying that tomorrow’s problems needed a new approach over yesterday’s solutions. He declared himself “ready to go to work.”
Incumbent Councilor-at-Large and M20PIA slate candidate Robert Russo, making his case for re-election, cited his experience as a councilor and as the mayor of Montclair from 2000 to 2004 and dealing with the effect of 9/ 11 on the community, along with the township’s success in getting long-term contracts with public unions, expressing confidence that his background was the necessary experience to make government work and get through the COVID-19 crisis. M20PIA Councilor-at-Large candidate Roger Terry also cited his long service to Montclair, saying that his years as a police officer and his expertise in emergency management made him suitable for the crisis at hand. He also committed himself to fighting for rent control and more affordable housing. Loughman, the independent councilor-at-large candidate, said that as a councilor she was beholden to no interest groups and was prepared to vote on fact-based convictions, citing her experience on the Planning Board and her fiscal discipline as qualifications for a council position.
YVM First Ward Councilor candidate John Hearn said that as great as Montclair is, things could be better, criticizing haphazard development projects and calling for greater emphasis on pedestrian safety. He said he was running because a new direction was needed for Montclair, especially because of COVID-19. “Do we believe that the path forward through this crisis and beyond is a straight line from the last eight years or that progress requires change, that new times require new leadership?” he said, citing his experience as an entrepreneur who helped businesses get started and existing ones adapt to change. Incumbent M20PIA First Ward Councilor William Hurlock cited his own experience in working with conservancy groups in town and also having worked as well as lived in town, along with his experience with crisis in having dealt with Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In the Second Ward, incumbent M20PIA Councilor Robin Schlager stressed her commitment to the schools and to public service by citing her time on the PTAs of Hillside and Nishaune Schools and as an associate director of development at the Metro YMCA of the Oranges. Her YVM opponent, Christina Thomas, talked about her education in mathematics, the law, and public policy.
M20PIA Third Ward Councilor candidate Lori Price Abrams said she was prepared for the council because of her experience in fiscal management, and she expressed confidence in Montclair’s ability to handle COVID-19 because of its progressive, cosmopolitan vibe. Cummings, as the lone Fourth Ward candidate, said he looked forward to succeed Dr. Baskerville but feared that he would not be able to match her passion in the office.
The mayoral candidates were then asked how they planned to rebuild Montclair after the pandemic. Councilor Spiller said he would create a comprehensive plan that would take advantage of the town’s walkable downtown area and encourage more pedestrian and cycling activity to support its cultural and commercial attractions, and he once again called for a COVID-19 task force to handle the crisis. Dr. Baskerville touted what she called a Safety Comprehensive Plan, which would make all of Montclair more accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, and people with disabilities, and she said she would create a steering group to handle the COVID-19 crisis by involving financial interests, labor unions, and emergency planners in a steering group to manage resources to help Montclair. She did admit that there were unknowns going forward.”We’re not sure where this pandemic is leading us,” she said.
On library trustee board and Board of Education appointments – the two biggest responsibilities of the mayor in a council-manager system – Dr. Baskerville and Councilor Spiller both vowed to involve the community in the process, with Dr. Baskerville calling for community groups to help with the selection process for appointments and get more input from residents, saying that the current appointment system is not good enough. Councilor Spiller would start with those closest around them and then go more broadly into the community to find members of the two boards, with an emphasis on working with education advocates to fill school board positions. On dealing with the budget in the wake of COVID-19, Councilor Spiller said that the paying down of the debt by $60 million and the improved bond rating for Montclair that would allow loans at a better rate has laid the foundation for fiscal management and the ability to employ the surplus to keep Montclair going, as well as incentivizing local retail activity. Dr. Baskerville said she would look at surpluses and unspent funds, such as the 2020 snow budget after a mostly snowless winter, but she vowed she would not cut municipal salaries or furlough municipal workers.
The discussion of fiscal policy led Coyl to ask a question submitted by a viewer for all of the candidates – the question of the $12 million liability of accumulated sick or benefit time payouts that the questioner said could be better used for town services rather than “line the pockets” of those who did not get sick while they were working and how the practice could be changed. Dr. Baskerville said she would prefer to rely on surpluses and grants during the pandemic, avoiding the question directly, while Councilor Spiller it was important to keep supporting public employees through the crisis. He added that the $12 million could not be legally re-allocated but he wanted to look at that money as total compensation. He said that staffers took less money today for the promise of money in the future, and that the township can hold onto that money and have a payout later - and the interest Montclair gets in the meantime works for the taxpayers and saving money in the long run.
Cotter said that the council can look into compensation in future contract negotiations and all contracts are going to require closer scrutiny as the township tries to find savings, while Price Abrams said the any future negotiations would have to be done in good faith and with fairness to municipal workers. Loughman pointed out the earned sick days are required by state law, and Councilor Hurlock said that the state legislature tried to address these costs paying out leave at the salary rate when earned, not when employees retire regardless of when the time is earned, but that proposal went nowhere. He said that Montclair has tried to address it locally by capping the accrued amounts of leave that are earned, which the township has begun to do with hires going forward. He hoped that the state could come up with fair solutions for municipal workers. Cummings said it was “a good problem to have,” because they could look at the budget and see what the compensation costs are and base the budget on something stable.
Councilor-at-Large candidates Russo and Terry said that the contracts were an essential to support public employees. Thomas said it was not a real issue, citing the need for such compensation for workers, epically during the COVID-19 pandemic with and sick time needed for situations like cancer treatments, and Hearn said the question unfairly suggested that public employees were taking advantage of the system, arguing that the treatment of municipal employees reflects the values of the community. Councilor Schlager found the question insulting and refused to answer it.
The thirteen candidates participating were all in enthusiastic agreement in supporting the library. Cummings supported the idea of continuing to spend a percentage of the budget on the library while also seeking out grants to get it through the pandemic, while Thomas said it needed as much support as possible given its role as a community center, especially with the necessary physical renovations for both branches. Price Abrams said that she helped fight and stop the worst cuts in library aid proposed by then-Governor Chris Christie, praising the library and its staff, while Councilor Schlager noted her own frequent visits there. Hearn and Councilor Hurlock agreed that the Bellevue Avenue branch, which Councilor Hurlock helped got funding to restore, was a great resource.
As for the mayoral and councilor-at-large candidates, Terry agreed that the library was a community center, made all the more clear by the incorporation of the Adult School of Montclair into its programs. Councilor Russo noted his support for the library by, as mayor, having appointed Robert Jackson to the library Board of Trustees and working on the council to strengthen the library when with Jackson when Jackson became mayor. Councilor Russo also said that the shared-services concept could be explored to bring in communities with fewer resources for libraries of their own. Loughman said it was important to keep the library open as a research center for people who couldn’t afford Internet service. Cotter noted that the pandemic would put funding under stress, and he strongly advocated searching for possible grants to help keep it afloat. Yacobellis simply said to Library Director Coyl, “We have your back.”
The forum closed with the mayoral candidates expressing their continued support for the library. Councilor Spiller noted that he had worked to restore library funding after a series of cuts when he first became a council member, and he would be happy to increase spending on the library, calling its role in the post-COVID era is important. Dr. Baskerville said he would seek out grants for the library to help keep it running, noting its importance as an educational resource for its learning programs and also its ability to help poorer residents connect to the Internet. Coyl concluded the forum by thanking all of the participants, reminding viewers to mail in their ballots before May 12.