MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council had a light agenda for its June 9 meeting, the final conference meeting of the current council under outgoing Mayor Robert Jackson. The meeting lasted longer than expected, however, by a seemingly endless barrage of calls during public comment from local business owners accusing the council of failing to give them enough support during the COVID crisis.
Ten second-reading ordinances and three resolutions were up for a vote, which indicated the outgoing council’s move toward housecleaning in anticipation of the inauguration of the Eleventh Montclair Council on July 1. As with every council meeting since March 24, the meeting was only accessible to the public via live video streaming and telephone due to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite Governor Phil Murphy’s lifting of the stay-at-home order that same day.
Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District (BID), was one of the first callers. He said that the BID had a meeting to address the crisis and agreed on a list of recommendations for the council, among them opening parking decks for free between 10 A.M. and 10 P.M. for six months or until peak-time demands approach capacity, offering free parking at meters for the first fifteen minutes to ease curbside pick-up, facilitating scheduled street closures for better pedestrian flow and outdoor dining, allowing businesses to utilize their sidewalk frontage for business and ease restrictions on said used to compensate reduced capacities, streamlining the permit process for such uses, and rescinding the special-parking zone and parking fine increases immediately.
Gleason also spoke on behalf of the newly formed Montclair Commercial Districts United committee, offering a list of points that included suspending permit applications, charges and process pertaining to businesses that use outdoor space until September 30 and facilitating roundtable meetings between council members, business owners and township employees. He added that many of these ideas have been implemented by other towns in New Jersey.
Other callers expressed similar concerns throughout the public comment period. Jaji Packard, the BID’s assistant secretary and treasurer and a landlord, said that she has gotten no rent revenue and two of her properties are vacant with, she feared, more to come for her and other landlords. She said she was unaware of further help from the township and that many people were frustrated, and she called for more pedestrian-friendly amenities to help retailers and for relaxed parking fees. BID member Jose Barreiro echoed that sentiment, saying he was embarrassed by what he called the “anemic” response to the crisis from the township. “It is critical that the town take some action,” he said. “The businesses in this town, the restaurants and other businesses have put their big-boy pants on, have gone and donated food, have paid the salaries of their employees. It’s time for the town and the town council to step up and do the same.”
Denise Ford-Sawadogo of the Montclair Brewery said that she wanted to the council to understand that this was not business as usual and that she has lost 50 to 70 percent of her business, asking that the council do more to alleviate their problems by having more street closures and allowing more eateries to offer outdoor dining more easily during the crisis. Also, Franco Porporino of Fresco da Franca, whose restaurant is BYOB, also echoed the limited-capacity regulations on dining outdoors and he called for the closure of Church Street and Glenridge Avenue on Friday and weekend evenings to keep businesses afloat and allowing more outdoor seating to other restaurants in order to make enough money to get through the usually profitable summer period.
Among non-restaurant business owners, Jeff Beck of East Side Mags asked that parking fees be waived for the next month or two to get people to come to Montclair to shop. Mayor Jackson said that the parking fees and time limits have been waved since mid-March, but the township needs to slowly re-introduce fees gradually through August, noting the need for non-tax revenue to stabilize the tax base (a statement Jose Barreiro would later call “a poor excuse”). Phil Cantor lamented that while other towns have been very supportive of their businesses, Montclair has left its businesses behind, especially with regard to ending free parking recently.
“A vibrant town doesn’t happen by itself,” Cantor said. “We need your help.”
Mayor Jackson addressed the concerns raised when the public comment period was over, insisting that the council has been concerned all along but adding that it has been difficult with complying with the guidelines from Trenton, which he said Governor Murphy has had a tough time figuring out. Mayor Jackson went on to say that he hoped that ideas put forward by local business owners could be implemented, and he reminded them of the diligent work the outgoing council has done over the previous eight years to help develop the local economy. First Ward Councilor William Hurlock, calling from home, said he had spoken to local business owners to hear their concerns and go over township finances with the Council Finance Committee, but he lamented that there was only so much the council could do due to a “legal web” of issues. Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon said that he has personally supported local restaurants by ordering food from them, which he said was one of the few good things about the pandemic.
During public comment, Bike & Walk Montclair president John Sullivan called to say that the township needs increased pedestrian space and dedicated bicycle lanes to promote social distancing in the COVID crisis and make people feel safer. Sullivan urged the council to endorse programs to redesign the streets for pedestrians. Bike & Walk Montclair’s support for increased use of bicycles as transportation has been criticized, though, by some residents who find the promotion of year-round cycling unfeasible. Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller said during the meeting that he hopes to look at street closures in different parts of town, and he said that the Public Safety Committee will look into the possibility this week, particularly identifying which streets can be closed and on what schedules.
Among the ten ordinances unanimously passed were approvals of improvements to parks and pools, a bond ordinance to replace the stairs at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, and bond ordinances for various parking lot water utility upgrades that Mayor Jackson and Deputy Mayor McMahon noted were fully funded without a need for borrowing money. Mayor Jackson said that the utility surplus did not have to be transferred to the operating budget to mitigate tax increases but instead was saved over three years to provide for capital spending without tax increases. The three resolutions, all unanimously passed, were the bill list, a services agreement with H2M Associates to investigate remedies for off-site groundwater near a property on Orange Road, and an extension of the deadline for completion of the parking decks for the Seymour Street project to October 31, 2021.
The council also passed new salary ordinances for municipal communication employees through 2026 and fire department employees through 2027. Mayor Jackson cited this as another triumph of the outgoing council, saying that the next council would not have to worry about negotiating contracts with the employees’ unions.
With only one regular meeting left for the outgoing council, the disputed mayoral election came up in Council comments, with Fourth Ward Councilor and mayoral candidate Renée Baskerville addressing the 1,086 votes for mayor that remain uncounted. She noted her efforts to get the county to include those votes in the final tally. The votes, which outnumber by almost ten to one the current margin between Dr. Baskerville and the presumptive mayor-elect, Councilor Spiller, could change the results in Baskerville’s favor. Councilor Spiller, for the record, had no comment on the matter.
Also, toward the end of the meeting, Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford reported that municipal tennis and basketball courts and the skate park are now open, though he urged those using them to adhere to guidelines meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. He reported that there have now been up to 416 COVID-19 cases with 46 deaths, though he did not report recoveries. Mayor Jackson said that at least the spread of the disease was slowing.