Fresh from a municipal election that returned Mayor Robert Jackson and the entire Montclair Township Council to office, the council approved the town’s budget for 2016 at its May 24 meeting. The $82 million budget, which was approved on April 19, passed with about as much drama as there had been with the election.
The budget includes $52.8 million for municipal expenditures, $7.3 million for school purposes per Montclair’s status as a Type 1 school district, and $ 2.3 million for the library, with .73 percent tax increase overall as reported by Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao. The entire process took about five minutes.
“That was interesting,” Mayor Jackson said at the end.
“Can we do it one more time?” Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon joked.
The debate over a resolution petitioning Congress to enact a revenue-neutral carbon tax turned out to cause greater controversy. No one disagreed with the idea of such a tax, but the mayor and at least three councilors had reservations about supporting it. Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville thought it was a “deviation” from the council’s business and wondered if the council would try to address other national issues locally, like the minimum wage. First Ward Councilor William Hurlock said it was inappropriate for the council to petition a higher governing body on legislation and called it a “feel-good” resolution, noting both Mayor Jackson (who expressed similar reservations about the resolution during the council’s May 3 conference meeting) and Councilor McMahon were also hesitant to support it. Not Deputy Mayor Robert Russo; he emphatically explained the need for its passage with outraged eloquence.
“Our form of government,” the deputy mayor said, is that the people from the bottom tell their council members and their public officials what they want. So people from the streets . . . come to us asking us to help advocate at the national level – which, by the way is a very reactionary national level of government . . .we are telling them we think they should do something. So how many more years are we going to wait to do something? How many more storms, how many more crises are we going to have?” Deputy Mayor Russo added that that Montclair’s investments in environmentally friendly policies, such as solar energy, gave the town some authority on the matter.
In the end, the resolution passed 3-0. Dr. Baskerville voted yes with Deputy Mayor Russo and Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller in the hope that the council could take steps to address similar issues of major importance, but the mayor and Councilors Hurlock and McMahon abstained. Despite Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager’s absence due to illness, the resolution still passed because one abstention for every “yes” vote was not tantamount to a tie.
Dr. Baskerville had qualms about one other resolution, that authorizing a professional services agreement with Montclair lawyer Jason Santarcangelo as a special counsel for abandoned and vacant properties for 2016. She wondered about spending money on lawyers for specific purposes. Mayor Jackson noted that the township had always consulted outside lawyers on issues such as labor and that even the post of township attorney had once been an outside position, adding that Santarcangelo had generated six dollars for the township for every dollar spent on his counsel . Dr. Baskerville, however, preferred to abstain, and the measure passed 5-0.
With regard to ordinances, the council also passed on first reading an ordinance creating a new C-3 business district zone for Church Street and Glenridge Avenue to preserve the historical continuity of the two streets in accordance with the “historic center business district” created by the Planning Board in an amendment to the master plan in February. Dr. Baskerville expressed concern that adjacent areas such as the Lackawanna Plaza area would still be fair game for development that did not conform to the C-3 zone, but Township Attorney Ira Karasick said that the council could regulate development through a redevelopment plan for Lackawanna Plaza. The Planning Board recommends ideas for redevelopment but the council has the final say and approval on a plan.
The C-3 zone ordinance passed 6-0 with prohibitions on uses such as adult entertainment establishments, tattoo parlors, automobile sales and services, and pawn shops, among others. It also included a provision limiting building heights to 37 feet, which real estate owner Dick Grabowsky had said at the May 3 council meeting was tantamount to “spot zoning” and did not factor in the taller buildings around the zone. A second-reading ordinance could amend that provision, but there was no indication of any changes being considered.
Another first-reading ordinance, creating a Director of Senior Services in the Health Department with a salary range between $80,214.49 and $96,478.15, also came under a critique from Dr. Baskerville, particularly the high maximum salary. Karasick explained that the position was created to be the equivalent to the nursing director’s position, with the same level of training, and that was where the maximum number came from. He didn’t believe that it was a managerial position. Dr. Baskerville complained in response that calling the new post a directorial post when no one would report to this person and would bump the salary up, made no sense. Fire Chief John Herrmann, substituting for Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford, tried to provide some answers. He said that the new director would provide coordinate with different groups to provide services to township residents, such as the Adult School, but could not say if the salary range was comparable to similar positions in surrounding areas. The ordinance passed on first reading 4-0, with Deputy Mayor Russo joining Dr. Baskerville in abstaining. Chief Herrmann said he could ask Stafford to provide more information.
Dr. Baskerville also asked about a demonstration by the People’s Organization for Progress (POP) that recently occurred on Bloomfield Avenue. As Karasick explained it to Baristanet, the group applied to the police department to hold a march on the avenue, and the police gave them a permit only to march on the sidewalk. The group contacted Essex County and supposedly received a letter giving them permission to use the avenue – Karasick says he hasn’t seen the letter – and after meeting among the municipal authorities, it was decided that the police would intervene to protect the safety of the marchers. Dr., Baskerville worried that groups applying for permits to march in Montclair were not beholden to a uniform standard, and that special rules had been made for POP.
“We did believe that we need a better process for being able to address these issues,” Karasick said, citing the need to balance First Amendment rights and public safety. “That needs to be worked out a little better.” He said that the group and the police had cooperated with each other. He found Dr. Baskerville’s point about uniform standards to be legitimate, but he said that the bureaucracy has to resolve situations like this one when they come up.
In public comment, resident Kyle Pelling brought up an unpleasant situation involving the Montclair animal shelter’s director, Nicole Dawson. He said that a dog with biting problems had been euthanized in November 2015 and charged that the shelter hadn’t followed protocol to try to rehabilitate the dog, named martin, and have him overcome his biting habit. Though dogs whose biting habits cannot be corrected are euthanized as a last resort, Pelling said that martin was never given any rehabilitation training, and he said that the volunteer trainer at the shelter didn’t even know that Martin had already been euthanized. “Other animals at the shelter face a similar fate,” Pelling said.
Pelling’s voiced his concerns to fellow volunteers, which he said led to be reprimanded for spreading false rumors and his dismissal from the animal shelter a couple of months after Martin’s euthanization. He said he learned that other volunteers had been spreading rumors about him, and that his dismissal was carried out by two volunteers at Dawson’s discretion. he said that she didn’t even acknowledge his dismissal personally, which he found to be unprofessional.
“I know I am not the only one who has faced such treatment at the animal shelter,” said Pelling. “It is my understanding that two other volunteers, as well as one animal control officer, were also let go under similar circumstances.” He demanded that changes be made to improve the situation. Resident Karin Coorant, another shelter volunteer, said that Pelling was an excellent volunteer but came to Dawson’s defense, saying she would never euthanize an animal unnecessarily. She said the overwhelming majority of staffers being volunteers working without any hierarchy was the biggest problem, but she added that the shelter was still well run and praised Dawson’s dedication. mayor Jackson said that Pelling’s concerns would be forwarded to Acting Manager Stafford nonetheless.