The Montclair Township Council went through another go-around of vocal support from residents at its February 21 meeting in favor of a township resolution declaring Montclair as a sanctuary city. The resolution Mayor Robert Jackson and the councilors considered and narrowly passed, though, did not use those terms, saying instead that Montclair would continue to commit to equal treatment of all people and to remain an open and welcoming community.
“The policy of the Township of Montclair shall be to welcome and treat all persons entering or living in our community with the same respect, fairness, and dignity, and to continue providing municipal services and enforcing the law on an equal basis to all people, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or nation of origin or descent, or of federal immigration status,” the resolution reads. “As a matter of policy, recognizing that this Council is prevented by State statute from directly instructing or ordering the Manager or Chief of Police to take any action or to operate the Police Department in a particular manner, the Police Department should continue to follow New Jersey Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive 2007-3 in interactions with federal immigration authorities, refraining from inquiring as to or investigating a person’s immigration status except in the limited circumstances when they are required by law to do so.” The directive states that police should ask about a person’s immigration status in the event of an arrest for an indictable crime or for a DUI (driving under the influence) charge.
While many residents welcomed Montclair’s renewed commitment to immigrants’ rights, many of those who spoke in public comment argued that the emphasis on adherence to the 2007 directive from the state Attorney General’s office was out of date in relation to the Trump administration’s aggressive expansion of arrests of illegal immigrants. Resident John Gutierrez said the resolution “encapsulated the values” of Montclair, but he added that the practical impact of the resolution was “nil,” saying more should be done to protect immigrants in town. Resident Anuraj Bismal said he too approved of the resolution’s reaffirmation of the rights of immigrants, but said he wanted to see it go further by being stronger in wording. He was concerned about the federal government’s directive to get local police to work more closely with federal authorities in arresting illegal immigrants and jailing them prior to hearings.
“We need to protect our people and our police department from becoming agents of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” he said. “We need language that prohibits the sharing of data between the police department and ICE. We need language that will authorize the police department to resist immigration enforcement as outlined by this current administration.” Bismal feared a serious rift could otherwise develop between the police and the immigrant population.
Not everyone favored the resolution. Resident Ryan Smith said that, while Montclair should continue its tradition of accepting newcomers, he was afraid that criminals could take advantage of Montclair as a place of sanctuary by coming to town to evade authorities. Student Melody Garcia said the resolution was unfair to legal immigrants who played by the rules to come to the country. She and other students said Montclair residents ought to come first before new arrivals. Roland Straten, Montclair resident and the Republican candidate who ran unsuccessfully against Congressman Bill Pascrell in 2010, dismissed the resolution as having no real effect and being an act of self-righteousness on the part of the town’s liberal majority. He called it the “We Hate Donald Trump” resolution.
“We’re not anti-Trump,” Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo retorted. “Trump’s anti-us!”
Resident Jeffrey Jacobson said the council did a great job, by recognizing that the directive remains in force and crafting a regulation that follows the law and re-affirms its commitment to the law that is currently in place. He pointed out that the 2007 directive is binding on local police departments until it has been rescinded, which the Attorney General’s office has not done. Jacobson was chief counsel of the state Attorney General until March 2016.
Before reading the resolution prior to the vote, Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville said the council appreciated the residents’ input, and she felt confident that the council had reviewed the legal opinions on the matter and reviewed other “sanctuary city” measures in the area. She said the resolution was as carefully worded as possible to get at least four votes from the council so Montclair could reassure people that it was and remains a welcoming township. Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller said he understood people’s fears that some law-breakers might take advantage of the resolution by coming to Montclair, but he was confident that more towns in the region would not give in to fear and present a united front against the Trump administration, saying it was necessary to speak up for what is right. Deputy Mayor/First Ward Councilor William Hurlock disagreed, saying the resolution could run afoul of the law, and he thought it would compromise the council-manager form of government under the Faulkner Act – namely, that the council would be violating its boundaries by telling the police what to do – as well as jeopardize federal funding. Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager also cited federal funding for school lunches as a reason not to support the resolution and risk losing such funding. The resolution passed 4-2 over Deputy Mayor Hurlock’s and Councilor Schlager’s negative votes. Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon was absent.
In other business, the council amended the 2008 financial agreement between Montclair and the developer of the Siena condominium complex. Township Attorney Ira Karasick said that the township worked with unit owners to have the condominium apartments valued consistently so that owners are taxed and charged with fees in a fair manner. Christine Pastini, a lawyer for the Siena’s association, asked for a postponement of the second-ordinance reading that amended the agreement so that the association could review it. Because the association does not own any units, the council deemed the request irrelevant and passed the ordinance 5-0-1, with Deputy Mayor Hurlock abstaining. Karasick found the requested delay absurd. “They could have renewed this whole thing in an afternoon,” he said.
The council also reviewed a first-reading ordinance requiring retail service businesses to post prices for services. Councilor Russo had wanted more time to review the wording, but Dr. Baskerville demanded that it be voted on, saying that it was pointless to continue to allow businesses not to post prices for services and possibly charge one person one price while charging another customer a different price. Montclair Business Improvement District Executive Director Israel Cronk said it was important to inform businesses and identify specifically what businesses would fall under such an ordinance, and it was delayed. Civil Rights Commission Chair Joe Kavesh, who spoke on the issue, also requested an adjournment to give the CRC an opportunity to review and discuss the proposed ordinance at its March 16 meeting, as the CRC had drafted a gender pricing ordinance in 2015.
Two other subjects came up. At the beginning of public comment, David Fucio of People with Disabilities Committee lamented that the township has not fully complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as the lack of infrastructural improvements throughout town. Mayor Jackson said he would be happy to have the Services Committee meet with Fucio’s group, and Karasick said something would be set up.
At the end of the meeting, Mayor Jackson expressed concern over the lack of progress in redeveloping Lackawanna Plaza and wanted to know how it could be kick-started. Dr, Baskerville proposed that the Economic Development committee should have a meeting later in the week to discuss how that could be done.