MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council held its first meeting since the mayoral and council elections the previous week, with three council members calling in from home – Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, First Ward Councilor William Hurlock, and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager. Mayor Robert Jackson was flanked once again by his would-be successors, Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller and Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, this time joined by Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon, but the disputed result of the mayoral election did not come up.
Councilor Spiller, the presumptive mayor-elect, did receive congratulations toward the end of the May 19 meeting from Mayor Jackson and his fellow councilors – for the birth of his second son, Brody. Dr. Baskerville, who has pledged to challenge the official results of the mayoral election, told Councilor Spiller she was “just a call away” if he needed help with his children. Meanwhile, Councilor Russo – just elected to a third consecutive term to his current seat – commended Mayor Jackson for having been a great leader for Montclair for the past eight years.
The meeting began with a call-in from U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ-10), whose district includes part of Montclair, to explain the most recent federal response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Representative Payne said that Essex County now reports nearly 17,000 COVID-19 cases with 1,600 deaths, with Montclair having about 400 cases and 50 deaths, and with the state inching toward reopening, it was imperative to have safeguards in place, such as testing.
“Everyone wants to see this situation over, obviously,” Representative Payne said. “Even though we are reopening slowly, it’s going to take testing for us to really get there and have a safe environment for us to move forward.”
To that, Representative Payne touted the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed on May 15. The legislation proposes $3 trillion in new spending to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic, with $875 billion for state and local governments. Montclair would receive $12.7 million in 2020 and $6.3 million in 2021. The bill would also provide another round of $1200 payments for low- and middle-income Americans, $35 billion for testing, tracing and treatment of COVID-19, and $200 billion in hazard pay for essential workers, and Representative Payne said he drafted legislation that would make hazard pay available to federal workers.
He lamented that large businesses that did not need federal money have gotten millions of dollars in federal aid while many local businesses have gotten nothing, and he said that he hopes to get money returned by large businesses to be redirected to community-based lenders and small banks and credit unions to help local businesses.
Mayor Jackson and the councilors thanked Representative Payne for his efforts, and the congressman gave out his website address (payne.house.gov) and his Newark office telephone number (973-645-3213) for anyone who needs help during the pandemic. The council thanked him for his leadership in the crisis. Mayor Jackson said that the $19 million for Montclair promised by the HEROES Act, which the Senate and the White House still have to approve, would go a long way toward replacing the revenue lost by the shutdowns.
Housing was the biggest issue of the meeting. The council passed on second reading the rent-freeze ordinance that had been voted on two weeks before, and resident William Scott, one of Montclair’s leading housing activists, called in to express his support for it.
As with the first-reading vote, Mayor Jackson and Deputy Mayor McMahon abstained, while the other five council members voted yes. A subsequent vote on a resolution that requires the ordinance take effect immediately was passed 6-0-1; this time, only Deputy Mayor McMahon abstained.
Scott also urged anyone facing housing-discrimination issues, especially those involving rent, to call the Montclair branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at 973-746-9315 for assistance in filling out a complaint form.
Earlier in the evening, he asked Township Attorney Ira Karasick about the status of the injunction against the rent-control ordinance passed by the council in April. Karasick said that Montclair made an extensive filing asking the judge to vacate the injunction, but the judge refused to do so. The township has responded by filing under an emergent basis to have the judge’s decision not to vacate the injunction reversed.
“We’re just waiting for the transcript of the judge’s statement of reason,” Karasick said. “We’re not dropping it; we’re pursuing it vigorously in order to get the ordinance implemented.” The statement of reason is expected on May 21.
Resolutions passed on the consent agenda included a resolution renewing contract for arborist consulting services and an authorization canceling capital appropriation balances in the school capital fund. An authorization of an agreement with Neglia Engineering Associates for $250,000, adding an extra $50,000 due to an increase in demands for engineering services, was also passed by resolution. Another resolution was passed to allow Montclair to enter an agreement with Essex County to receive reimbursement from the funds authorized by the U.S. Congress under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to provide economic damage relief.
Dr. Baskerville had questions about another resolution approving a temporary shared-services agreement with South Orange to provide a certified tax collector. Manager Stafford had explained that there was pressure on the finance department due to the extensions of the second-quarter tax payment period and the state fiscal year – the fiscal year being pushed back to September – and municipal tax rates will not be certified until New Jersey adopts its budget then.
The state is advising municipalities to issue estimated tax bills for third quarter. Manager Stafford said it was important to maintain tax-collecting services, which this temporary shared-services agreement, which would be in effect until November 2020, would make possible. But Dr. Baskerville wanted to know how South Orange was chosen; the manager said he spoke with several municipalities, the township’s auditor, and the county tax administrator, and the township ultimately interviewed South Orange tax collector without interviewing any other collectors. It passed 6-0-1, with Dr. Baskerville abstaining to lack of information.
Manager Stafford also reported that municipal courts resumed on May 11, with Essex-vicinage courts holding virtual sessions online for motor-vehicle issues only; cases involving local ordinance violations will be heard at a later date. He also reported that the billing department is now accepting applications for non-essential construction work, which resumed in New Jersey on May 18.
Also, Deputy Mayor McMahon read out a council proclamation designating May 17-23, 2020 as Emergency Medical Services Week and recognizing the Montclair Ambulance Unit. He noted that, while he had read out similar proclamations in the past, it carried special significance in the wake of COVID-19 this year.