Interrelated, snowballing local scandals in Montclair, New Jersey, could be a serious political liability for the township’s mayor, an up-and-comer in the Democratic Party — and even a contender for governor in 2025.
That's the view of some politics watchers in the Garden State.
In the latest of a series of controversies, Montclair Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao this month sued the municipality and its township manager, Tim Stafford. She claimed the manager subjected female department heads to bullying and toxic behavior for years, prompting some to leave their jobs. She doesn’t name Mayor Sean Spiller, or anyone besides Stafford as a target of the suit, but says she suffered retribution for trying to correct serious problems that tie back to the mayor and members of the Montclair Township Council.
Rao describes a range of abusive conduct by the manager dating back to at least 2020 — from dismissing concerns about allegedly illegal practices to screaming at subordinates in the office. The Montclair Local newspaper found allegations of abusive behavior were known to at least some officials for months or longer, reflected in a report the township’s affirmative action officer filed in August. News blog Baristanet quoted several municipal employees anonymously, describing a pattern of alleged abuse and humiliation.
Under Montclair’s form of government, the manager has the ultimate executive power over the township, not the mayor, who votes as a part of the council and only has a select few formal responsibilities beyond that. Stafford filled the role in an “acting” capacity for years, but was given the permanent title by a council slate voted into office in 2020, helmed by Spiller, and with his support.
The more smoke or the more questions that are swirling around, the more potential there is for baggage. And that can be fair or unfair.
Rao’s lawsuit, describing problems she says she tried to flag and fix, says the mayor signed off on an illegally awarded contract to investigate allegations about nepotism and mistreatment of Black promotions candidates in the Montclair Fire Department. She also alleges that the mayor and members of the council unlawfully received health benefits through a state program, with the OK of a since-departed township attorney.
She alleges she was punished for bringing up those issues, including being kicked off of the influential township finance committee made up of the mayor, Stafford and two other council members — citing a memo from Stafford saying she was being removed at the members’ instruction. Councilman Peter Yacobellis sent a message to media this month saying he and other members of the governing body had been approached by Spiller when he was trying to build a disciplinary file against Rao.
“If I were the [mayor’s] adviser, I would say you’ve got to have answers on all of these,” Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said.
Spiller’s role in NJ
Spiller is already a considerable force in New Jersey politics by virtue of his day job: He’s president of the New Jersey Education Association, the largest and most politically influential union in the state. The NJEA is among current Gov. Phil Murphy’s strongest supporters, and has funded multiple dark money groups tied to the governor and other prominent politicians.
This month, the NJEA and Spiller helped fund a new 501(c)(4) nonprofit, “Protecting our Democracy.” Political observers say it’s just the latest in a long series of moves that suggest the mayor has his eyes on a gubernatorial run of his own. He’s previously been tied to other 501(c)(4) groups as well — including one described by Politico as “Spiller’s equivalent of New Direction New Jersey,” a well-known NJEA-backed, Murphy-affiliated dark money group.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said a Spiller run for governor can’t be ruled out. He and Rasmussen, though, both cautioned 2025 is a long way away, and there are several Democrats who may seek the nomination.
“At the governor’s level, the folks have been really gearing toward folks who can bring their own money to the table,” Murray said. Spiller alone might not be able bankroll a major campaign, “but with the teachers’ union behind him, there’s a lot of ways he could use behind-the-scenes pressure to get support.”
Spiller has not returned multiple calls and email messages asking to discuss the lawsuit and its allegations. He said in a Facebook post Oct. 20 that he and the council didn’t know about the hostile workplace allegations until they hit the press. Yacobellis said he was “furious” he didn’t learn earlier, as the affirmative action officer’s report was completed months ago.
The township voted last week to put Stafford on paid leave as it continues to investigate the allegations against him.
Unlawful health benefits
Rao’s lawsuit hits on several concerns beyond the workplace environment.
Montclair transitioned from a private insurer to the New Jersey State Health Benefits Program in 2017, but a law governing the program requires beneficiaries to work at least 35 hours per week, and for government work to be their primary employment. Montclair’s council members don’t fill out timesheets, and most have other jobs, but multiple members still got benefits or $5,000 waiver payments instead, Rao says in the lawsuit.
She describes multiple discussions spanning years, involving the township’s former attorney, its auditor and HR department — ultimately leading to certifications from most council members that they either worked at least 35 hours a week or otherwise believed themselves to be in compliance with the law.
But several months after a new interim township attorney took over, the municipal law department issued new advice — that the council members weren’t eligible, even with those certifications, Rao says. An August memo from Assistant Township Attorney Gina DeVito also noted state Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin’s office charged Wildwood officials with receiving benefits fraudulently this summer, when they were not “full-time employees,” she says.
The Office of the Attorney General said this week it couldn’t comment on the allegations in Rao’s suit.
Rao says she’d tried previously raising concerns about the legality of the benefits with the finance committee, but that its members refused to address it. Those members, including the mayor, either got health benefits or the $5,000 waivers, she says.
Yacobellis told Gothamist he was personally among the council members receiving benefits. He doesn't work full-time elsewhere, and said he considers his role as a Montclair councilman his primary employment. He also personally works at least 35 hours a week, he said.
He said the council recently asked its separate labor counsel to give an opinion on whether the benefits were legal, because the internal law department opinions varied over time. Ultimately, he said, that firm agreed the council couldn’t legally get the benefits, various council members were in “different states” of transitioning away from the state system.
Yacobellis said he wasn’t aware of any effort to recoup the costs for the benefits over the time they may have been paid out illegally.
Other council members either haven’t returned phone calls this week or have declined comment.
Rasmussen said, taken alone, he wouldn’t be worried about political fallout from the benefits issue. Interpreting the law can be murky, other municipalities have grappled with how to handle benefits issues, and the mayor and council had been working on the advice of their professionals.
It’s the cumulative effect of multiple issues that could be a problem for Spiller’s ambitions, he said.
“The more smoke or the more questions that are swirling around, the more potential there is for baggage,” he said. “And that can be fair or unfair.”
Contract adopted quietly
Last year, three Black firefighters alleged Stafford and township Fire Chief John Hermann rigged a promotions test scoring rubric against them, in favor of the fire chief’s son and other favored candidates.
The township, in response, hired politically connected law firm O’Toole Scrivo to investigate, as its affirmative action officer conducted his own parallel inquiry. Founding partner Kevin O’Toole is a prominent Republican — a former state senator, and the current chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s board of commissioners.
But, Rao says in her lawsuit, the township never went through a legally required “fair and open procurement process” to hire the firm. There was no public advertisement for the job, and the township council never formally voted to award a contract.
Rao says Spiller signed the contract, and that it netted the firm an hourly rate nearly double what some other consulting firms have received. At a Township Council meeting Tuesday, David Cummings — one of the members of the finance committee — said that happened after Spiller took a “straw poll” of other council members.
Montclair Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Christa Rapoport said the township’s law department told her this month O’Toole Scrivo didn’t substantiate the firefighters’ claims — though she has objected to that finding.
Hiring a politically connected law firm under unclear, potentially inappropriate circumstances doesn’t look good politically, Rasmussen said. It’s not helpful when there are questions about alliances or an impression that something is being hidden, he said. But he also cautioned that might be too in-the-weeds of an issue for anyone but political wonks to care about.
Allegations of firefighter shift-trading
It’s another issue raised in Roa’s lawsuit that Rasmussen suggested might be more troubling for voters.
When Montclair’s affirmative action officer, Bruce Morgan, also looked into the firefighters’ allegations about the promotions test, he faulted Stafford and Hermann for a series of potential conflicts, including that the fire chief didn’t remove himself from a process that could and ultimately did reward his own son.
But Morgan also wrote he learned that in 2018, the fire department internally investigated allegations multiple firefighters were covering for another’s shifts, and submitting timecards in his name. Nine of 10 accused firefighters admitted the practice at the time of the earlier investigation, Morgan said he learned. Hermann, the chief, has not returned messages seeking comment, and has previously declined to discuss those allegations.
Morgan’s report said none of the firefighters was disciplined — of concern to his own inquiry, because the promotions rubric called for firefighters to lose points for past discipline.
Morgan hasn’t returned a call seeking comment. Neither his report nor Rao’s lawsuit names the firefighters accused of involvement.
It’s also unclear who learned about the investigation in 2018. The township answered a public records request earlier this year saying it had no record of any report filed in connection with the internal 2018 investigation. At least one council member said this spring she’d never before heard about the shift-trading allegations.
Rao says in her lawsuit she tried repeatedly to take corrective action — asking Stafford whether the township had tried to recoup costs, if it had implemented better controls for monitoring time, and what other steps he’d taken. Stafford only screamed at her, she said, saying he’d referred the matter to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. That office acknowledged earlier this year it was investigating the matter.
The firefighter scandal could be significant for Spiller, Rasmussen said, if there’s a perception corruption was allowed to happen on the mayor’s watch.
“If someone’s being paid for hours where they didn’t work, that’s the kind of thing that voters don’t stand for,” he said.
Locally, the council and mayor have seen protests outside their municipal building, and hours of angry demands for accountability at their most recent council meeting.
“Mr. Spiller, I know you're gonna take cover behind lawsuits and say you can't answer these questions,” township resident Deirdre Birmingham said at the meeting. “By the way, this town has never had so many active legal cases. You broke this town. Fix it. Fix it.”
This article has been updated to say Councilman Peter Yacobellis considers his work for Montclair his primary employment.