MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council had its first meeting since the inauguration of Mayor Sean Spiller and the six councilors elected to serve with him.
The July 7 conference meeting was notable in that, as with previous Planning Board meetings, it took place on Zoom, whereas council meetings under former Mayor Robert Jackson during the COVID-19 crisis had taken place in the council chambers with some members present and some joining in by telephone, as necessitated by the pandemic.
Mayor Spiller explained that the switch to Zoom was due to a change at the municipal building, though he did not elaborate on what that change was. One person commented on the YouTube feed that the sound was making it impossible to hear, and at one point toward the end of the meeting, Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo momentarily lost his signal. Still, the meeting pressed on despite the technical difficulties.
The agenda featured one ordinance and a review of the agenda for the July 21 regular meeting, but nearly an hour was devoted to public comment, where residents touched on numerous subjects, such as a senior center, a bicycling component for the Safe Streets initiative, the 911 call by a white woman against a black neighbor in which she claimed that he’d assaulted her, and the proposed supermarket at Lackawanna Plaza. Ann Lippel of the Montclair Senior Citizens Advisory Committee called upon the council to bring the negotiations with the United Way for use of its building at South Fullerton Avenue as a senior center to satisfy the township’s commitment to the project, and resident Carolyn Luck of Aging In Montclair called in to say that the new council can make it happen and get the plans in motion as soon as August. Luck was so eager to press the point that she called in a second time to re-iterate her position, which Councilor Russo said was indicative of her passion on the issue.
Several callers touched on the 911 call made against a black homeowner and suggested that the council pass an ordinance prohibiting false 911 calls, but Township Manager Tim Stafford said that such a move would violate state statutes related to such matters, and Township Attorney Ira Karasick concurred.
“The manager was correct,” he told resident Colleen Martinez, “that the state law against false reporting . . . pre-empts municipalities from adopting [such] an ordinance. So no matter how concerned the council is, and I guarantee you that the council is concerned, they can’t adopt [that] kind of ordinance.” He added that there are still many indictments on grand juries for false reporting. Resident Norma Tassy asked if there was any distinction between an ordinance prohibiting a false 911 call and one against filing a false police report, but Karasick said that the statutes would block either ordinance.
Mayor Spiller did note that the townspeople were in concert together against the perpetrator of the incident, and he saw this as a good sign of civic action.
“We have some legal limitations, but I think some things are beyond the law, and that is really about our character, and I think Montclair has shown itself to have good character in this regard,” the mayor said. His comments mirrored what he said in an interview with Dan Mannarino of WPIX-TV in New York.
Town planning came up in public comment, especially with regard to biking. John Sullivan, president of Bike & Walk Montclair, stressed the need for cycling infrastructure in residential neighborhoods to get people to ride their bicycles to the downtown area instead of using their cars as a way of alleviating parking problems, suggesting temporary demonstration projects to show what it would be like. Others, including cycling activist Laura Torchio, called in to express disappointment with the planned pedestrian improvements being separated from the proposed cycling improvements, insisting that both be integrated holistically. The Planning Board, in its June 22 meeting, chose to emphasize pedestrian aspects of the Safe Streets plan in an effort to revise recommendations for pedestrian issues in the Safe Streets initiative, concluding that there would be more consensus on that issue than on cycling.
At the same time, resident Coretta Sager called to express support for closing streets such as Church Street or Watchung Plaza to help restaurants and other businesses due to the pandemic, noting that many streets in countries like her native Germany have a tradition of establishing pedestrian zones in street layouts. She said that, despite waived permit fees for outdoor dining, the restaurants need more support. Mayor Spiller sympathized with Sager, saying that measures such as permit fees and allowing pickup in front of restaurants have indeed been enacted, but he said that closing streets would be difficult. Church Street, he said in using an example, is needed for deliveries. He said that a street-closure schedule and a need for barriers would likely make such a closure cost-prohibitive, and the township needs to study how it can be done in a cost-effective way that benefits everyone. He did add that progress was being made in the study.
Meanwhile, two residents called in to ask about the proposed supermarket at Lackawanna Plaza, and Mayor Spiller had to remind them that the project is tied up in a lawsuit brought against the developer by residents trying to stop the destruction of historic elements of the former railway terminal that would house the supermarket. Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager asked Karasick for an update on the lawsuit, and he promised to look into it.
The only item up for a vote – the Eleventh Township Council’s first – was on an ordinance providing for $4.8 million to capital improvements for the schools. Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams asked if it was under budget, referring to two different figures in the memo. The memo alluded to over $5 million in spending. Manger Stafford explained that the Board of Education and the Board of School Estimate had approved three capital projects. The previous council had passed bond ordinances for the first two, and this was the third of them; the $5 million figure referred to the previous two capital projects had already been done. This third capital ordinance passed unanimously on first reading.
Councilor Price Abrams also asked about a resolution up for a vote on July 21, which authorizes grant applications with New Jersey Department of Transportation for the Essex-Hudson Greenway through the Bikeway Program and Safe Streets to Transit Program, which would create a bike-and-walk path on a former railroad right-of-way. Referring to $2 million of additional costs on top of $65 million, she asked if or the grants were for the smaller costs, bigger costs, or both. Manager Stafford said it was for the $2 million, adding that if enough grants go through, the excess could be used for part of the purchase of the right-of-way. The towns involved are acting as pass-throughs for grant funding without any cost to them, and the project is being pursued by a non-profit group.
Manager Stafford said toward the end of the meeting that there have been 434 COVID-19 cases, including 50 deaths.
He also said that the Mountainside and Nishuane Pools are opening Monday, July 13, but at 50 percent capacity with restrictive protection measures and no guest passes available. Memberships are available starting Wednesday, July 8.
In closing comments, Mayor Spiller and the councilors expressed gratitude for the opportunity to lead Montclair in the next four years.