MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council had a mostly light agenda at its May 5 conference meeting, but the issue of a moratorium on rent increases dominated the discussion after earlier business had been taken care of.  An ordinance on the freezing rent increases for three months, retroactively to May 1, was ultimately passed on first reading, but only after copies were made of Township Attorney Ira Karasick’s original draft and Mayor Robert Jackson and the councilors had a chance to review it. Copies were also sent electronically to the councilors attending by phone due to COVID-19. As with previous meetings, Mayor Jackson and the two councilors vying to succeed him as mayor, Sean Spiller of the Third Ward and Renée Baskerville of the Fourth Ward, attended in person. 

The rent-freeze ordinance discussion began with Councilor Spiller saying that it was important to provide housing security for renters in the pandemic.   Karasick said he looked into it and reported that Montclair can adopt such an ordinance legally, noting that Hoboken has already done so, and he said that it would apply to all apartment rental units with the exceptions of two-unit buildings with the owner occupying one of the units, units that are exempted by federal and state law (because some units are exempt from rent regulation if they were completed recently), and subsidized units.  It was Karasick who suggested it should be retroactive to May 1, based on the idea that the ordinance could be passed in May.

The ordinance, which recognizes the public health emergency, the COVID-19-related loss of jobs, and the state moratorium on residential evictions and foreclosures and so decrees a three-month freeze on increases, was read aloud by Karasick.

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Mayor Jackson asked about renters with two months left on their leases who renewed their leases during the moratorium, and both Karasick and Councilor Spiller assured him that the third month would be covered by the increase freeze.  Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon wanted to know how it would be enforced and if the landlords could join a suit against it to the rent-control lawsuit.  Karasick said that the landlords could sue if they wanted to, but it would not be joined to the rent-control suit, as this ordinance would be independent from the rent-control ordinance.  As to enforcement, a summons would be issued to violators, with all such matters adjudicated by the municipal court.

Dr. Baskerville was enthusiastically supportive of the rent-freeze ordinance but was also disappointed that it was being introduced only now and before Karasick had a chance to circulate it through the council; she said she wanted to see a copy of it and get a chance to read it for herself after having heard Karasick read it out loud.  She also said that the Montclair chapter of the NACCP had contacted everyone on the council and asked that such an ordinance be passed, and she added that she tried to confer with the mayor and the other councilors to get a second and did not hear from anyone. 

“I’m also disappointed,” she said, “because when the people that were opposed to the rent-control ordinance came out and they started saying it was wrong because they didn’t know anything about it . . . at the time I was opposed to what they were saying because I know exactly how many meetings I hosted for rent control and the duration of time that we had been having meetings so that everyone could be heard and have a voice on the rent-control ordinance.”   She said that, in this case, the council clearly hadn’t had a chance to hear from landlords or anyone else who may have objections.

“We have to do better as a council in terms of these things that are extremely important,” she said.

Councilor Spiller said that the mayor and councilors weren’t permitted to discuss the ordinance among themselves and had to discuss it and “flesh it out” in a public conference meeting.  However, he also opined that passing it sooner to have it up for second reading, given the dire situation of renters in a pandemic severe enough to cause an economic downturn, made it imperative to pass on first reading as soon as possible.  Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo agreed, finding nothing to object to in Karasick’s draft.

After a fifteen-minute recess so everyone could digest the ordinance, the meeting resumed, Councilor Spiller introduced it, and First Ward Councilor William Hurlock asked if this would conflict with the rent-control litigation.

“One of the main arguments which brought on the current litigation was the issue of being able to have a referendum,” Karasick answered, ”and the Governor has put that one to bed a bit by changing the rules for allowing referendum and allowing electronic submission, so I think this is a separate issue.”  Earlier, Councilor Spiller had noted that many landlords had voluntarily offered to freeze rent increases, and he did not think that there would be a problem. 

The council voted 5-0-2 to pass it on first reading, with Mayor Jackson and Deputy Mayor McMahon abstaining.  The ordinance goes to second reading at the council’s May 19 meeting.

In other business, Mayor Jackson and Deputy Mayor McMahon abstained on another item – a resolution urging landscapers to stop using leaf blowers during the pandemic so as not to affect people sheltering in place.  The mayor, who noted it was request and not an order, said that he hadn’t heard of any health-related objections to leaf blowers, and he added that it was a slippery slope toward banning leaf blowers, which would case landscaping companies to lay off workers when these companies need leaf blowers to do more business in less time.  Deputy Mayor McMahon, who uses a leaf blower himself, called the resolution “a little bit overwrought.”  The resolution passed with the votes of the other five councilors.

The council also unanimously passed an extension of the grace period of second-quarter tax payments due on May 1 to June 1 a week after Governor Phil Murphy’s executive order giving municipalities such authority was issued. It also unanimously passed a resolution extending reimbursement of credit and debit card fees on property tax and utility charge through 4:00 P.M. on May 11.  In discussing a resolution authorizing a professional service agreement with Neglia Engineering Associates for municipal engineering services, which is up for a vote in May 19, Dr. Baskerville asked if maybe it was prudent to return to an in-house township engineer to get more rapid responses to different matters and issues.  Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford noted that salaries for a township engineer and his/her assistants totaled over $500,000 without including all of the costs of retaining engineering firms for all capital projects, which was done when Kim Craft was Township Engineer.  Manager Stafford had said that contracting with Neglia would save money overall. He said that Dr. Baskerville can come to him or Deputy Township manger Brian Scantlebury with any engineering issue that arises.

Dr. Baskerville seemed satisfied with the answer, but she said that in previous matters regarding an engineering issue since engineering duties began to be contracted out, the wrong engineer showed up for the wrong project.  She also said that such problems arising with contracting engineering services would have to be ironed out.

Manager Stafford also reported that there were 367 COVID-19 cases in Montclair with 38 deaths.  He also said that municipal parks were open for passive recreation – walking and cycling – but no organized sports, with playgrounds and sports facilities remaining closed.    Municipal courts will resume session on May 11, but only by video and by telephone.