MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council held on March 24 its first meeting since a statewide lockdown was imposed in New Jersey to stop the spread of coronavirus. 

It was quite a contrast from two weeks earlier, when a conference meeting in the second-floor meeting room was so packed for a discussion of a rent-control ordinance that social distancing – at the time recommended but not mandated – had been impossible.  This time, the meeting had to be held in the council chambers without any members of the public allowed in order to prevent a possible spread of the virus, and the meeting was visible by live video only.  Chief Information Officer Tony Fan fielded calls from residents for public comment.   YouTube recorded a peak of 21 viewers during the broadcast.  Only Mayor Robert Jackson, Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon, and Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller were physically present; the other councilors took part by phone.     

The much-awaited second reading of the rent-control ordinance was not placed on the March 24 agenda, though it might be taken up as early as the next council meeting.  Instead, the council concentrated on passing the 2020 budget.  The council opened a hearing for public comment on the budget, but there were no callers.  The budget was subsequently adopted unanimously by resolution. The 2020 budget appropriates $55.4 million for municipal purposes, $2.6 million for the library, and $7.9 million for school purposes pertaining to a Type 1 School District, to be raised by taxation.  Mayor Jackson reminded residents once again that the budget has no tax increase for 2020. 

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The public did call in for regular public comment, though there were technical difficulties and some of the calls were barely audible.  One resident called to complain about landscapers continuing to work during the coronavirus pandemic and asked that they be restricted from working, due to the emergency.  Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford noted that outdoor workers who cannot work from home were exempted from Governor Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home executive order, and as such, Montclair cannot restrict outdoor workers due to a subsequent executive order forbidding county and local governments from pursuing any action that would override the previous executive order.   

Also, resident Abraham Dickerson urged the council to take nutrition as a priority in light of the coronavirus crisis.  He lamented that the current municipal administration was not taking nutrition in the schools as seriously as previous municipal leaders had done, and he stressed that the pandemic has made the need to improve health via providing students with the proper nutrition paramount.  Dickerson, a chef, said the “grease trucks” selling unhealthy lunches outside schools were taking money away that could made in the school district but also took money away from some local business that might be doing better. 

“There are too many smart people that live in this township,” Dickerson said, for us to be moving backward.  Is there any way we can get back on track in our school nutrition program instead of having a cur administration that blatantly violates our school policy?”

Mayor Jackson thanked Dickerson for his comments and said he would have them passed on to the school board, calling the comments “well-founded.”

Inevitably, public comment shifted to the rent-control issue.  A co-founder of a newly formed group of property owners, the Montclair Property Owners Association, said that the property owners the group represents feel like that concerns have not been fully addressed and that it would be disadvantageous for them to express their concerns at a second-reading hearing for the ordinance. The group wished to seek a meeting with the council in private to discuss its concerns.  Mayor Jackson said that the property owners could meet with council members individually but said a private group meeting would be inappropriate.  Ann Lippel of the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, meanwhile, called in to say that seniors would benefit from a second reading to allow more input on their concerns, noting that 32 percent of Montclair renters are 55 and older.   

“I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to move this forward and introduce this,” Councilor Spiller said of the rent-control ordinance.  “I think we will be able to continue to listen to anyone who’s got an opinion to share with us on the matter, but I absolutely foresee and will be advocating for us to move on this as planned.”  

On the coronavirus crisis, Manager Stafford reported the sad news that Montclair has had 21 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, which includes four deaths, with more cases expected as testing continues.  Manager Stafford stressed social distancing and urged township residents to visit the COVID-19 page on the township’s Web site and to sign up for the township’s Swift911 alert system via the township site’s main page.  He also said that the May 12 municipal election will be held by mail-in ballot only, with ballots to be mailed to voters on April 21.  Also, the Parking Utility has waived parking fees for April 2020 for current monthly permit holders, all meter and permit enforcement is suspended for the time being.  Municipal lots and decks are available for overnight parking. 

Councilor Spiller urged residents to continue to support each other in the crisis.  He said it was important that people remain connected emotionally while keeping themselves separated socially, urging people to stay connected by telephone or by Skype.  Speaking by telephone, Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, a pediatrician, reminded residents that people with coronavirus may not have any symptoms and could easily spread the illness if social distancing is not practiced.  

Mayor Jackson concluded the meeting by saying test site opening on Thursday, March 26, but he did not offer any details on that topic.

Also, a first-reading ordinance setting an eight-year timeline for salaries of police superior officers was passed unanimously.  Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, calling in, cited the stability and continuity allowed by the union as a result of the negotiations for the eight-year contract between the union and the township.