A group of residents, mostly parents and students, turned out Thursday night for a meeting of the township’s Civil Rights Commission at Montclair Fire Department headquarters to share concerns about inequity in contracts and town hiring, as well as race issues in the public schools.
Civil Rights Commission chair Joseph Kavesh told the group the purpose of the commission is listen to issues and concerns and make recommendations to the Town Council and the Board of Education.
“We can’t subpoena anyone, but we can investigate. I want everyone here tonight to understand, say what’s on your mind. I don’t believe in holding back,” Kavesh said.
But some residents wondered aloud if their comments and complaints would ever go beyond the meeting room. Several said they had been sounding an alarm for years and nothing had been done to fix what they believed to be long-term racial problems in Montclair. Also in attendance at the meeting was Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, town council liaison to the Civil Rights Commission, Montclair Public School Chief Talent Officer Michelle Russell and Gail Shepard, president of the Montclair Education Association (MEA), which represents teachers.
Resident John Washington told the group of about 30 residents that he has a major problem with Montclair Township Manager Marc Dashield. He says there are federal and state guidelines with regard to Affirmative Action, but that Dashield ignores them. Washington says he has filed Open Public Record Act (OPRA) requests in the past requesting statistical information on the hiring of minorities for township projects, including the South Park Street Development Project. “The percent of workers was barely two percent minority,” he said.
Washington, who has more than 30 years of construction experience, said New Jersey state guidelines for construction work with public money require the manpower be 53 percent minority and 6.9 percent female. “When it comes to Montclair he (Dashield) kicks Affirmative Action to the curb. He needs to be replaced,” Washington said.
Washington told the group he went to a Civil Rights Commission meeting about seven years ago and asked about statistical numbers on the hiring of minorities for the construction of Bullock School, and says he later found out the entire project only had two minorities and one female.
“When is this community going to step up and do what it is supposed to do? When are you going to step up and do something? Do something,” he said.
Audrey Hawley, a longtime resident who retired after 25 years working for the township, said that she was very concerned about a recent comment Montclair Township Manager Dashield made to The Montclair Times about diversity in the Montclair Fire Department. In the Times’ March 13 issue, Dashield is quoted as saying that “the diversity of the Fire Department’s staff is not something that residents currently need to be worried about, and that Montclair is on par with its neighboring municipalities”.
“Why is he saying the residents don’t need to be concerned when he is in charge of Affirmative Action in the district? The rank and file in the fire department has gone backwards in the past few years,” Hawley said, pointing out that of the 84 firemen in the department, only 20 percent are minority, compared to a township that is 27 percent minority.
Hawley should know. Her husband Jarvis Hawley, also present at the meeting, is a retired Montclair Deputy Fire Chief. After listening to complaints from other residents, he shook his head and said, “The same stuff from 30, 40 years ago is happening about education, about hiring, about diversity.”
Councilor Baskerville told the residents they should take action if they think there are clear-cut incidences that violate laws, rules and regulations.
“You have yourselves as resources to get free attorneys. Go to the Education Law Center in Newark. Go to the Women’s Law Group here in Montclair. They will represent you for free,” she said.
Kavesh said the Civil Rights Commission is planning a larger town wide forum, possibly in the fall, to continue discussions about race issues in town and in the schools.
“People are frustrated. If one person says something, ok. If two people say something, ok. But if more people say the same thing they are sounding an alarm,” said Kavesh. “Look, I don’t want to believe there is institutionalized racism, but there are many concerns.”