Renée Baskerville

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

How should the deputy mayor be appointed? Should the councilman-at-large rotate, as was done in previous administrations, or should each ward’s councilperson have a turn on a yearly basis? Those were the questions posed at the Aug. 6 council meeting as a group of clergy came out to decry Councilwoman Renée Baskerville not being appointed as deputy mayor in June. 

In the assessment of the local clergy members, the Fourth Ward, which Baskerville represents, is “once again being overlooked and under represented.”

The problem is that who will become deputy mayor is more than arbitrary. Montclair code only states: “The council shall appoint a deputy mayor from its membership to serve a term to be determined by the council.”

The June 25 council meeting agenda included a resolution to appoint Baskerville to the deputy mayor position. But after the council emerged from its closed executive session, Third Ward councilman Sean Spiller put forth a motion to appoint at-large councilman Rich McMahon as deputy instead. The motion was seconded by First Ward councilman Bill Hurlock, and the vote passed, 3-2, with Spiller, Hurlock and McMahon voting yes, Baskerville and Third Ward representative Robin Schlager voted no and at-large councilman Bob Russo and Mayor Jackson abstained.

According to Russo, the former mayor who served as deputy mayor in both 2012 and 2014, the position of deputy mayor has always been split between the two councilpersons-at-large — who represent the town as a whole, not any specific part of town — according to tradition. 

But Baskerville said that when she and the current mayor and council ticket ran and won together in 2016, they mutually agreed to rotate the position of deputy mayor through the wards, starting with the First and ending in the Fourth. Hurlock, Schlager and Spiller have finished their terms as deputy mayor, and Baskerville appeared as if she would have assumed the role at the June 25 meeting before the vote to appoint McMahon.

At the time, Baskerville said she was blindsided, confused and hurt by the vote.

When she questioned the order of the rotation in 2016, Baskerville claims that Hurlock advised her that even though she would be last in the rotation, she would be the deputy mayor during the next mayor/council election, which will occur in May 2020. 

According to Schlager, who placed the resolution on the agenda, it was her error.

“I should have spoken to the whole council first,” she said.

But Fourth Ward residents aren’t having it. 

The Rev. Robert C. Coles of the Petra Baptist Church requested that the council formally apologize to Baskerville, but reminded the council her non-appointment was not about Baskerville herself, but about representation of the Fourth Ward.

“We are concerned what this says to the Fourth Ward,” he said.

The Rev. Clenard H. Childress of the New Calvary Baptist Church said it was an injustice to the community who trusted the officials they elected into office.

The Rev. Elizabeth Campbell said that the apology should not be about what Baskerville felt, but what occurred.

She called for a rescinding of the vote to name McMahon and to conduct a revote. 

McMahon in response said his appointment was based on an election and “she lost.” He added that he too had lost the deputy mayor appointment before — to Russo in 2014. 

Coles suggested that council set clear procedures for the deputy mayor appointment in the future.

In a later interview, Russo, who maintains that he seconded of the original resolution to appoint Baskerville, suggested that the town could pen an ordinance creating two deputy mayor positions to be served at one time, rotating both through the two councilpersons-at-large and the ward representatives. He also called the deputy position “largely symbolic and ceremonial.”