Montclair Township Council Deals With Workers’ Rights, Peace Issues From Public

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councilThe Montclair Township Council had only four brief topics to discuss in its conference meeting on September 17, with only three resolutions to vote on in the meeting that immediately followed.  Although everything was over in less than two hours, the meeting was nonetheless prolonged by large turnout for public comment.  At the forefront were the issue of Montclair joining cities such as New Haven, Connecticut in calling on Congress to increase domestic spending at the expense of the military and the ongoing problems between sanitation workers and management at the Department of Community Services (DCS).

Richard Burrell, president of Local 2296 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the sanitation workers, reiterated the complaints he made in April 2013 about the residents’ failure to comply with a municipal ordinance prohibiting trash receptacles larger than 35 gallons and weighing no more than 50 pounds.  Burrell noted that nothing had been done about the issue, citing the directive to garbage workers to pull out as much refuse as possible from oversized cans.

“This is a health and safety issue,” Burrell told the council.  “If an employee refuses to pick up the can or cans, he is subject to discipline.”  He singled Township Manager Marc Dashield and DCS Director Steve Wood for inaction, and he noted that receptacles between 42 gallons and 105 gallons were being used by Montclair property owners.

In December 2012, Burrell and Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Diveny drove through town and wrote down addresses of households using illegal receptacles and met later with Wood and then-Township Human Resources Director Katherine Dougher Berning and came up with ideas to deal with the problem.  “We were to meet with Mr. Dashield and the council in February 2013,” Burrell said, “but for reasons unknown, we did not meet.”  Burrell demanded answers regarding an investigation into the treatment of workers conducted in June by Assistant Township Attorney Joe Angelo, after AFSCME was promised information on the issue by September 12 but did not receive any.  Burrell has indicated that he will ask workers to avoid trying to handle or pull refuse from illegal cans beginning on November 1.

“It is the council’s duty to represent the residents of Montclair,” Burrell said, “but also to provide a safe working environment for township employees.”

AFSCME Local 2296 President Richard Burrell
AFSCME Local 2296 President Richard Burrell

Both Burrell and AFSCME representative Seth Gollin also pressed for the township to negotiate in good faith over the issue of lateral transfers of employees, which both men cited as essential to give service workers opportunities for promotion within the township by allowing them to apply for available jobs based on qualifications.  Gollin said that this was the only sticking point in the negotiations with Dashield.

Mayor Robert Jackson offered the suggestion that Dashield form a working group with Wood and union representatives to address the receptacle issue, as Burrell had hoped for in February, much to the applause of the many sanitation workers who attended.  One worker addressed the council expressing frustration with the disrespect many of them feel.

Members of NJ Peace Action also addressed the council to endorse a ballot resolution calling on Congress to transfer 25 percent of military spending to domestic concerns.  Joined by two peace activists from New Haven – Henry Lowendorf, president of the Greater New Haven Peace Council, and Alfred Marder,  chairman of the New Haven Peace Commission, a commission authorized by the New haven municipal government – NJ Peace Action’s Ethel Owens  and Madeline Hoffman urged the council to publicly support such a resolution.  Lowendorf and Marder explained to the council that they got the same resolution on the ballot to get New Haven behind the idea, and New Haven’s voters put the city on the record as supporting such a transfer of federal spending priorities.

NJ Peace Action's Madeline Hoffman
NJ Peace Action’s Madeline Hoffman

“The purpose is to inform the public of the idea and to begin taking actions on behalf of peaceful uses of money to rebuild or communities,” Owens said. She added that Montclair would be the first New Jersey municipality to take such a stand if it passed a resolution by popular vote.

Deputy Mayor Robert Russo loved the idea, proposing that such a non-binding resolution be placed on the ballot with the added language to advocate the adequate funding of public schools.  Township Clerk Linda Wanat and Township Attorney Ira Karasick both thought it was possible to place it on the ballot this November, promising to look into it and give the council a definitive answer.

The three resolutions on the agenda for the evening – the bill list, a resolution referring to the Planning Board a proposed nomination of the Montclair Heights Reformed Church on Mount Hebron Road as a historic landmark and one supporting PSE&G’s Energy Strong Initiative, which was brought up two weeks earlier by PSE&G’s Everton Scott – all passed 6-0, with First Ward Councilor William Hurlock absent.

Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville wondered how PSE&G’s program would be funded, citing concerns that the poor would be burden by higher utility rates.  Dashield told the council that rates are not likely to be affected because of the winding down of surcharges on utility bills.  But Deputy Mayor Russo was concerned about the diminished investment in unionized PSE&G personnel and the reliance on utility workers from right-to-work states in emergencies like Superstorm Sandy.    The council passed the resolution with amended language that PSE&G has assured Montclair that it would not affect low-income customers and that Montclair anticipates adequate staffing on the part of the utility.

In the conference portion of the meeting, Assistant Township Attorney Joe Angelo testified on the need – advocated by Karasick – to establish a salary for Angelo’s work as Acting Prosecutor with the added workload and the required court appearances his extra responsibility has entailed.  Dr. Baskerville questioned the logic of a salary for a temporary position, and Mayor Jackson said it was a debate more suitable for executive session, which the council entered into after the meeting was over.

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