MONTCLAIR, NJ - The quadrennial reorganization meeting of the Montclair Township Council on July 1, which involved the inauguration of the incoming mayor and council, began fifteen minutes earlier than usual.
The earlier start time, though, was not the biggest surprise of the meeting. The big surprise was that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was in attendance to administer the oath of Mayor of Montclair to Sean Spiller. And so, just before noon, Spiller became the township’s twelfth mayor under the council-manager system since it became Montclair’s form of government in 1980. Newly re-elected First Ward Councilor William Hurlock was chosen to serve as deputy mayor, a position he had held from 2016 to 2017.
In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and face coverings were the order of the day. Most of the attendees wore masks at one time or another, though those who spoke before the public doffed their masks when they did speak – except Governor Murphy, who remained masked when addressing the ceremony with a few comments about Mayor Spiller.
The governor, who could not stay for the entire ceremony, called Mayor Spiller “a dear friend” and called Montclair “one of New Jersey’s true treasures,” known for its vibrant and diverse community with socially active residents and a long history of progressive political leadership. He said that Mayor Spiller was certainly up to the task of preserving the township’s reputation.
The governor also said that no time was more important than now to strive to provide prosperity and fair labor practices while dealing with and eradicating systemic racism in New Jersey and improving education, and he told the new mayor that he was pleased to consider him a partner in governing. “The voices of our state’s municipalities are vital in charting our course forward,” Governor Murphy said to Mayor Spiller, “and I know you’ll never shy from sharing your insights, your ideas, and your concerns. I’ve always looked as Montclair as a leader among our communities, and I know, Sean, under your leadership, it will continue to be just that.”
Mayor Spiller, in his inaugural address, thanked the governor and all of the public officials he has served with, saying he learned from them on how to put good policy forward and to lead through trying times. He thanked Montclair’s voters and said he was committed to represent everything Montclair stands for. “We have much to do to keep the people safe and healthy and to ensure we emerge from this pandemic as strong as and stronger than we were before,” he said, adding that he would continue to work for racial and social justice. He said that Montclair is well-positioned to go forward with the debt having been reduced by $60 million and with new infrastructural improvements, which he professed would help Montclair get through the pandemic. He said he looked forward to working with the new team that includes Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams, and Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings. Apart from newly re-elected Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, who was sworn in by Township Clerk Juliet Lee, all of the councilors were sworn in by Municipal Judge Joseph Angelo.
Deputy Mayor Hurlock, after being sworn in to his third term as First Ward Councilor, thanked his father, who is a retired police detective, and his mother, a teachers’ aide, for instilling in him the importance of public service. He said that his campaign was affected by stolen campaign signs, hacked social media campaign sites, and antipathetic parades outside his house, calling the behavior very uncharacteristic of Montclair and saying it complicated a campaign made already difficult by the pandemic. “That is not the way we do things in Montclair, and I hope that this will l never, ever be repeated again,” he said. On the positive side, he thanked his children for helping him with social media, joking that he still thought of Zoom as the name of a seventies children’s TV show. Newly re-elected Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, now beginning her fourth (and third consecutive) term, said she was proud of her record of service to the community and expressed her gratitude to the voters and her campaign team, as well as to her husband and her children.
Councilor Cummings, in his remarks, stressed the value of Montclair as a township where support from the community and a strong school system helped him get to where he was, and he cited the numerous black Montclair mayors and councilors who preceded him as having paved the way for him. He lamented the continued existence of racism in town, as evidenced by a white woman on Marion Road who falsely accused a black neighbor of assault when she thrice trespassed on his property demanding to know if he had a permit for a patio he was building. Councilor Cummings stressed the importance of combating racism in light of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis and noted his own experience living in the South and his crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, an iconic civil-rights protest site.
“You get a sense of history that a textbook or a video can’t give you,” he said of the Pettus Bridge. “I took that ride . . . and the smell of cotton is something I know deeply.” With that in mind, he said it was important to keep alive the spirit of love and community in Montclair that helped him get an education and prosper as both a sportswriter and as a public servant. He acknowledged the pandemic, saying that it had turned people’s lives upside down and that the council had to act to get it under control.
“We won’t always do what we want us to do,” Councilor Cummings concluded, “but we will always do what you need us to do.”
Councilor Yacobellis said he was encouraged upon taking office by having seen neighbors coming together during the pandemic and looking more inward as they remain active in local affairs, and he hoped that Montclair residents stay informed and involved. He added that he couldn’t be more excited to get to work. Councilor Russo, now beginning his third term as councilor-at-large, said that he was inspired by the memory of his mother, who died recently, and how she would have encouraged him. He had planned to retire from the council but ran again at the urging of his constituents. And Councilor Price Abrams, saying she had moved to Montclair for its cosmopolitan sensibility and diversity, pledged in her remarks to bring fairness and compassion to her office, adding that she hoped to fight for preserving Montclair’s character, work toward social justice, and make Montclair more affordable to live in.
The incoming Eleventh Township Council issued proclamations honoring outgoing Mayor Robert Jackson as well as outgoing Councilors Rich McMahon and Renée Baskerville. Outgoing Mayor Jackson said he was proud of his council’s achievements and said he knew that the new council under Mayor Spiller would do great things, while outgoing Councilor McMahon praised Jackson and added that the old council’s efforts have made the township internationally famous. Dr. Baskerville, who had run against Spiller in the 2020 election and is seeking to have over a thousand outstanding ballots counted, offered no comments.
The new council quickly got to work, officially appointing Councilor Hurlock deputy mayor and naming him in place of Mayor Spiller to chair the Board of School Estimate with Councilors Schlager and Price Abrams joining him. The chairing of the Board of School Estimate is normally one of the mayor’s few executive duties in the council-manager system, but Mayor Spiller, a teacher and a teacher’s union leader, will not serve in that capacity so as to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The council also decided Councilor Schlager will continue her role as the council’s liaison on the Planning Board. And Tim Stafford finally became the official Township Manager of Montclair, having served in an acting capacity since 2014. The resolution anointing him as such also allowed Manager Stafford, a Cedar Grove resident, to continue to live outside Montclair.