Montclair council moves to terminate town manager, yielding to angry crowd

The Montclair Township Council, yielding to an intensely angry group of mostly female residents, voted on Tuesday to start the termination process for Township Manager Timothy Stafford, the subject of two lawsuits and two sworn statements by female municipal employees alleging abuse.

The 5-0 vote was an abrupt reversal of the 5-1 vote in October to put him on paid leave, despite calls by the public then for his removal. In recent days, it seemed the council was, in fact, poised to reinstate him.

The vote came after two hours of impassioned public comment punctuated by jeers, shouts of “Me Too” and “Recall the mayor,” and signs held aloft accusing the council of misogyny.

During a break, a petition circulated to recall Mayor Sean Spiller.

The line to speak at the Montclair town council meeting, after which the council voted to start the process for removing manager Tim Stafford,  snaked through council chambers. February 8, 2023.
The line to speak at the Montclair town council meeting, after which the council voted to start the process for removing manager Tim Stafford, snaked through council chambers. February 8, 2023.

The vast majority of those who spoke were women, many of whom said they were in disbelief that the town leadership would be thinking of reinstating a man who was accused of abuse by multiple female employees.

“I’m so appalled and shocked that you would reinstate Tim Stafford,” said Obie Miranda-Woodley. “What kind of dirt does he have on you? Who are you indebted to that you would go against this town’s values? I really don’t know how you sleep at night. You should be protecting women who work for this town. Shame on you.”

“Ousting him should be the easiest decision you have to make as councilors,” said Lauren Berman. “He’s an at-will employee who can be terminated for any or no reason." Also, she said, he is no good at his job.

The motion to start the process to terminate Stafford, which under the Faulkner Act regulating Montclair’s form of government will involve giving him a hearing, was put forward by Peter Yacobellis and seconded by Bob Russo.

Both have been outspoken in publicly pushing for Stafford’s ouster, despite warnings by Township Attorney Paul Burr that the matter could not be discussed openly by council members because of legal liability.

Mariana Horta thanked the women who filed legal actions against Stafford. “Rao, Lee, Trembulak, York — you did not have to do this. [You] had much to lose and very little to gain.”

Then she focused on Padmaja Rao, the town CFO who filed suit against Stafford and the town in October, after her complaints and a report by the affirmative action officer were suppressed. In January, she made a motion to add allegations of retaliation against Spiller to her suit. Rao continues to work as the township's CFO.

“Ms. Rao, I love you. I appreciate you. I admire you. You have the courage that the mayor lacks. You have the leadership that the mayor lacks,” Horta said.

She and others questioned the relationship between Stafford and the Fire Department. Several of the abusive incidents by Stafford that Rao alleged in her lawsuit occurred when she spoke up about possibly illegal activities by members of the Fire Department. One involves a discrimination suit by two Black firefighters alleging that Fire Chief John Herrmann rewrote the promotional exam to favor his son on Stafford’s watch.

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“What is the relationship between the manager and the fire chief?” she asked, calling for Herrmann's removal. "These white guys from Cedar Grove run this show for their benefit and we are paying for the party.”

Mary Birmingham also questioned the relationship between Stafford and the fire chief. "Herrmann manipulated the fire exam to give his son an unfair advantage with the blessing of Tim Stafford, knowing that Montclair taxpayers would be sued. It’s the definition of corruption,” she said.

She cited the “incredible” bravery of Juliet Lee, former acting town clerk, and Katie York, former director of senior services, and read portions of their their suits, which she said she found “sickening.” One incident she described was from Lee’s suit in which she describes being “traumatized” when Stafford allegedly told her to get her wastebasket and go through it while other town officials watched.

She also read from the sworn statement of Celia Trembulak, former health official, who said she was “never treated with such disrespect and inhumanity. The council members said nothing. I felt humiliated again and began to cry. I stated to him, ‘You have broken me,’ but Stafford kept screaming at me as I wept.'”

“Do you not believe these sworn-under-oath statements from these women or do you simply think that behavior is acceptable?” Birmingham said. “Because it’s one or the other.”

York’s name came up often. A bevy of purple-attired seniors marched to the podium to lament that her treatment by Stafford caused York, who has a doctorate in gerontology and was beloved among the seniors, to leave her post, putting senior services in disarray.

June Raegner called the council to task for not taking action on Stafford since the first lawsuit was filed in October, or after the second lawsuit and two more statements accused Stafford of abuse.

“The most important job you guys are supposed to be doing is supervising the town manger, and you blew it,” she said. “You’ve been ignoring the [affirmative action officer’s] reports, you’ve been ignoring lawsuits, you’ve been harming the town in a million different ways ‘til Sunday.”

After he gets his due process under the Faulkner Act, she said, "Get him the hell out."

This article originally appeared on Montclair NJ council looks to terminate township manager