MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council had a brief remote public meeting on July 21 in which fifteen resolutions and the bill list were placed on the consent agenda and a first-reading ordinance extending the rent freeze until December 31 was considered. As with previous meetings, though, public comment was dominated by an issue not on the agenda – defunding the police.
A Montclair High School student called to express support for diverting money earmarked for the police department, which she pegged at $15 million, to making the schools equitable, and she lamented the way blacks and Hispanics are harassed and terrorized by law enforcement. Resident Marc Joseph called for part of the police budget to be redistributed to social programs and services. Resident Abraham Dickerson was more forceful on the issue. In his call-in, Dickerson said that he had sent out a list of nine points on the police reform issue to Mayor Sean Spiller and the council, and he said he got responses from Councilors-at-Large Robert Russo and Peter Yacobellis, though he did not explain what their responses were.
His main concern was the failure of the township to require body cameras for police officers. “I myself had confronted several people in front of the council, way before Floyd got killed, talking about police reform in terms of body cameras,” Dickerson said, referring to the George Floyd killing in May 2020. He said that cameras are used not just to prevent people from committing crimes but also to provide evidence for crimes committed, and he added that the township should have looked into the issue long ago before it had to worry about how to pay for it. He also chastened the police union for allowing bad officers to remain in place.
Montclair residents who participated in the meeting were not unanimous on police reform, though. Resident John Van Wagner, a leading Republican in town, offered a comment on the YouTube feed’s chat screen against defunding and “dismantling” the police, saying it was “a purely political posture and a money grab from left wing political interests.”
Dickerson, a chef, also took the time to re-iterate his call to get the school district to provide healthy meals and to get rid of the food trucks outside the high school. He said that this would go a long way toward addressing food security, which has become a major issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also stressed the need to help minorities live in Montclair and to make housing affordable.
Toni Martin of the Tenants Organization of Montclair also called in, noting the extension of the rent freeze on the agenda but also asking Township Attorney Ira Karasick about the lawsuit brought by Montclair landlords against the rent-control ordinance that the previous Montclair Council under then-Mayor Robert Jackson had passed on April 7. Mayor Spiller, who represented the Third Ward in the previous council and is a supporter of rent control, subsequently asked if action on extending the rent moratorium would have an impact on the ongoing rent-control case.
Karasick said that the rent-freeze ordinance and the rent-control ordinance are separate issues and that one doesn’t influence the other. He did say, however, that because the rent-control ordinance has been suspended, then the rent-freeze ordinance is crucial to keep in place for some breathing room during the litigation period.
“It’s not a substitute,” Karasick said, “but it does address the immediate problem.”
Karasick recapped the progress on the litigation so far, saying that Montclair had unsuccessfully challenged an injunction on the ordinance. The township submitted briefs on June 12 to eliminate a preliminary injunction and move forward, but he has no further information until a case management conference on the suit is held on the morning of July 23. He added that the landlords have been out collecting signatures to get rent control on the ballot for a referendum. The issue, he said, is whether or not the ordinance should go into effect or whether not the landlords should have more time to conduct the push for a referendum. Karasick said that the township’s position is that the ordinance has been passed and should go into effect, and if the landlords want a referendum on it, they should follow the legal procedures to do that.
Jose Barreiro, marketing chair for the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, called in to thank the township for closing Church and South Park Streets but said that more should be done. He emphasized bringing back parklets, closing more streets to cars, establishing accessible timetables for street closures, and finding more ways to drive more business to stores on Bloomfield Avenue, many of which he said were minority-owned and employ minorities as well. But Barreiro was unreserved in his gratitude for what the township has done so far for businesses, praising the handling of the closing of Church and South Park Streets and commenting how many people were there and frequenting the many businesses on the block, including Bloomfield Avenue businesses. Church Street is closed to cars during the weekends on Friday and Saturday evenings from 5:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. and South Park Street is closed from 5:00 P.M. on Fridays through 3:00 P.M. on Sundays until and up to the weekend of September 26-27.
Mayor Spiller said he was glad to have a partnership with the Business Improvement District to get Church Street and South Park Street to close for pedestrians on weekends, and he was heartened to see businesses take advantage of the grant program the township put forward to battle the COVID-19-induced economic problems. “We will continue to look at the pieces to see what has been done,” he said, adding that Township Manager Tim Stafford has looked into how other towns handle problems their local businesses. Both Mayor Spiller and Deputy Mayor / First Ward Councilor William Hurlock offered praise for the township’s various departments in making the street closings possible, as well as efforts in providing safety and refuse collection.
The mayor also spoke to the police issue, saying that many residents have been asking what defunding the police might look like, and he said it was up to him and the councilors to listen to different views from residents. Issues and concerns over defunding the police are being referred to the Public Safety Committee to compile and accordingly make recommendations to the council.
The council then voted on the ordinance extending the rent moratorium to December 31 and passed it unanimously, although they had to wait for Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, who joined in by telephone instead of Zoom, to have her vote recorded due to technical difficulties. Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams said it was imperative to get it passed because the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 shows no signs of abating. Notice will be published in the Sunday, July 26 edition of the Star-Ledger to ensure a second-reading vote at the council’s conference meeting on August 4.
The council also passed, as part of the consent agenda, resolutions authorizing grant applications with the New Jersey Department of Transportation for Essex-Hudson Greenway project, a resolution authorizing the renewal of a contract with Sal Electric Co. Inc. for electrical services for the township, and a resolution awarding a contract to Montclair MotorWerks for the repair and maintenance of the Police Department’s vehicles, among other things. Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings joined the council in unanimously approving the bill list but abstained from an item pertaining to the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation because of his past involvement with the group.
After a break for an executive session, Manager Stafford reported that there have now been 445 COVID-19 cases recorded in Montclair, with 50 deaths, though he stressed that that he had reported the same number of deaths when he briefed the council on July 7; hence, no additional deaths had occurred in the last two weeks. He reminded residents that drive-through nasal-swab testing remains available in Weequahic Park in Newark on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:00 A.M. to 12:00 noon free of charge to Essex County residents. Appointments are required.