Every resolution that was voted on in the Montclair Township Council meeting on October 4, like every first-reading and second-reading ordinance, was passed unanimously, but the resolution to appoint Ira Karasick as Township Attorney for another year provided the evening’s biggest controversy. It was ultimately tabled.
Karasick’s re-appointment had been discussed in a closed-door executive session on September 25, and the vote to go ahead with it appeared to be a formality. But a few councilors expressed concern that the issue hadn’t been thoroughly considered.
“I know we as a council have agreed that we review his year together,” First Ward Councilor Rich Murnick said. “And I believe we owe it to him. I think we can possibly say that we haven’t reviewed the township attorney together.” Murnick said that, without such a review, he was not prepared to vote for the resolution.
Second Ward Councilor Cary Africk agreed. “At this point, I don’t feel ready to approve it,” he said. “I would like to have some continuing conversation, because quite frankly, I’d like it to be a unanimous decision. And I don’t feel that everyone has been heard or that it has been discussed thoroughly enough.”
Third Ward Councilor Nick Lewis, who presented the resolution to re-appoint Karasick, staunchly advocated its passage, noting that Karasick had done a great service to Montclair by saving over $15,000 in legal expenses, collected a great deal of money in payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) programs, and cleaned up several contracts. The two council members who sided with Lewis – Mayor Jerry Fried and Deputy Mayor Kathryn Weller-Deming – deemed it unfair to postpone the vote.
“At out last council meeting, we discussed this appointment exhaustively,” Weller-Demming declared, “and barring any proposal other than to wait, I don’t see any reason to wait.” Noting Africk’s agreement that Karasick had done an exemplary job, she said she was “a little perplexed” over why some councilors wanted to delay a renewal of an appointment that expired on October 1. Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville tried to provide a definitive answer.
Offering a rejoinder to Karasick’s claim that the delay could disrupt the normal flow of municipal business, Baskerville replied that it was disruptive for “any employee of the township” to work for the benefit of one, two or three council members rather than the whole council — a not-so-veiled reference to Karasick’s possible conflict of interest in advising Fried and his allies over the election petition drive. “When you talk about ‘disruptive,’ I think that’s something we really have to stop and think about,” she said. “What are we really disrupting? I don’t want people just to go home and think things are running very smoothly here for the entire council and we’re disrupting something that’s extremely functional.” She said that her primary concerns were best left in executive session.
The pre-meeting session invited sharp criticism of Karasick from resident William Scott, who questioned the township attorney’s negotiation of a settlement with the efforts of the Mental Health Association of Essex County (MHA) to build housing for the mentally ill in the Fourth Ward. Scott, who led the Montclair Residential Preservation Group against the housing proposal, tried through the Open Public Records Act to learn the details of that settlement between Montclair and the MHA, but he was denied due to the “attorney-client relationship.”
“I really have a major problem with re-appointing Mr. Karasick as [township] attorney, ” Scott said, “because the information was not forthcoming. To use a client-attorney relationship to prevent the public from finding out what the settlement process and negotiation process was is unacceptable. We pay the salary of this individual and the public should know what was put on the table (to reach that settlement).”
Both Councilor Lewis and Karasick noted that that the decision to settle was made entirely by the Board of Adjustment and that Karasick turned over all the documents he had to the board, which determined which documents could be released. “I could not directly give you anything,” he told Scott. “I could only give it to them. I believe they responded to the extent that they could.” Karasick said he was aware that Scott got some of the requested documents.
In chambers, the council ultimately tabled the re-appointment by a vote of 4-3, with Councilor Roger Terry, Africk, Murnick and Baskerville voting to table. Baskerville provided the deciding vote, saying she preferred to vote on the resolution itself but agreed to table it out of respect for her colleagues. Karasick took it in stride, despite his misgivings about being left hanging, as he would remain in office in the meantime. “Whether or not I’m re-appointed [tonight], I don’t disappear and turn to a pumpkin,” he said.
Scott, during public comment at the regular meeting, said he hoped for greater public input in the re-appointment.
Meanwhile, the two zoning ordinances passed but then revoked in the previous session came up again, with Planning Director Janice Talley recommending that the duties of the newly titled zoning officer’s position be shared with code enforcement officers because the zoning officer’s position as defined in the ordinance falls under property maintenance. Noting that code enforcement officers who do inspections find zoning violations and establish penalties, Talley said that the zoning officer’s powers could be utilized in code enforcement inspections. She also relayed the planning board’s recommendation that temporary vestibules and storm enclosures be allowed to stand for six months, not seven as originally worded. Both ordinances finally passed, with the rewordings, less than two months after first reading.
Talley also addressed the second-reading ordinance adopting the first phase of the Montclair Gateway Redevelopment plan, which also passed. As presented, the plan would allow buildings no taller than six stories along Valley Road, Bloomfield Avenue and Orange Road, with first-floor retail space, mixed residential and office space in the upper floors and an exception for eight stories to encourage construction of a hotel, along with a networking lounge for professionals to connect with each other. William Scott, as a Montclair Housing Commission member, lamented the lack of a definite number of affordable housing units, but Talley insisted that 10 percent of any housing units created in the plan will be affordable.
Scott replied that the affordable housing component was still 50 percent less than a project of such magnitude should have. Councilor Terry also suggested a community center for the project – “just something to think about,” he said.
The council also dealt with the South Park Street redevelopment plan, passing an ordinance on first reading to provide a supplemental appropriation of $250,000 of pavement resurfacing, while passing resolutions rejecting bids for streetscape improvements and decorative lighting due to cost concerns. Councilor Lewis said earlier that while the township would try to save money, it must be open to spending more than the original projected cost of $750,000 to build something functionally as well as aesthetically beneficial.
“Let’s make sure we do this right,” said Mayor Fried.
Also, in the pre-meeting, Judge Richard Insley presented a report to the council on the Montclair Municipal Court. Judge Insley reported success in the elimination of the traffic and criminal case backlog but added that staff reductions caused a parking backlog. He called attention to the drug problem in town and cited the increased number of drug dealers on the streets. The judge lamented that Essex County lacks the resources to handle them, and they are usually sent back to municipal court and back on the street in a few months instead of doing time in jail.
Judge Insley explained that on occasions when a large-scale drug dealer was sent back to the court, he’s had the prosecutor request another county review; those sent back to municipal court are given a maximum sentence. “However, we’re limited,” he said, “because my court can only impose six months in jail.” The judge said he has tried to give them longer probationary periods and help them get drug treatment and eliminate plea-bargaining.
Judge Insley said he also takes robberies seriously because 80 to 90 percent of robberies are for money to buy drugs. For many offenders, he said, fines and probation are not adequate.
“The only deterrent I can impose are jail sentences,” Judge Insley said of some cases. “I’m not happy about sending people to jail.”