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BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The certified vote tally for Montclair’s 2020 municipal election shows Sean Spiller with a 195-vote win over Renee Baskerville in the race for mayor, according to the Essex County clerk’s office.

Out of 10,748 votes for mayor, Spiller garnered 5,445 votes (50.66 percent) to Baskerville’s 5,250 (48.6 percent).

It was a historic election for Montclair as polls were closed for the first time due to the pandemic and state of emergency. The vote was conducted by mail-in ballot only, with ballots counted if they were postmarked no later than May 12 and received by the county by Thursday night, May 14, said Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin.

The county released initial results last Tuesday, May 12, reflecting ballots received to that point. All seven candidates who were leading Tuesday remained ahead in the final tally.

The mayoral race was the tightest of those seven elections; Spiller held a 430-vote advantage over Baskerville Tuesday night, but ballots counted Wednesday and Thursday cut that lead in half.

Given the small margin of victory, and Montclair serving as New Jersey’s inaugural pilot test of an all-vote-by-mail election, Baskerville said that she is “exploring every manner of options.” 

“Where 8 percent of the ballots were rejected, during this Coronavirus pandemic that caused decreased post office hours and personnel shortages at the Montclair post office, we have to make sure that every ballot that should be counted is counted,” she said by email Monday, adding that she believed were there more than 400 ballots “not yet considered,” and more still coming in. 

“Every ballot that could have and should have been counted must be fully and fairly counted. We eagerly anticipate an expedited review of all outstanding ballots to ensure that all who cast their ballots in a timely manner are counted,” she said.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order last week allowing for the July 7 primaries to be conducted by mail and that all ballots received up until July 14 will be considered valid and will be counted.

Voters selected a new Township Council featuring three incumbents and three new faces, including a mix of the candidate slates headed by Spiller and Baskerville: four members of Spiller’s “Montclair 2020 Progress in Action” slate won their races, along with two members of Baskerville’s “Your Voice Montclair” team.

In the race for two council-at-large seats, of the 20,898 votes cast, Peter Yacobellis (Your Voice) and incumbent Bob Russo (Montclair 2020) came out on top, with 5,472 and 4,915 votes, respectively. They defeated Roger Terry (Montclair 2020) at 4,577, James Cotter (Your Voice) at 4,311 and independent candidate Carmel Loughman at 1,587.

With 2,925 votes counted for the First Ward council seat, incumbent William Hurlock (Montclair 2020) garnered 1,681 votes, while John Hearn (Your Voice) took in 1,241.

For Second Ward, with 3,075 ballots counted, incumbent Robin Schlager (Montclair 2020) received 1,763 votes, while Christina ”Chrissy” Thomas (Your Voice) received 1,305.

In the Third Ward election, Lori Price Abrams (Montclair 2020) garnered 1,295 votes, while Maggie Joralemon (Your Voice) received 1,001 with 2,307 votes counted.

And in the Fourth Ward, David Cummings (Your Voice) ran unopposed and received 1,915 of 1,942 votes cast.

Voters voted for mayor, two council-at large positions, and one council position depending on their address.

Although candidates couldn’t campaign by traditional means of knocking on doors and meet and greets due to the state of emergency, candidates took to social media to get their views out.

And voter turnout was better than typical for a municipal election, with 10,946 of Montclair’s 30,093 registered voters mailing in ballots, representing a 36 percent turnout. During last year’s November election, 21 percent of the voters headed to the polls; in the last municipal election in May 2016, only 7.9 percent of the then-28,465 registered voters voted.

WINNERS TALK PRIORITIES

The new council will take over on July 1 and will have to first deal with the pandemic and how it affects the health of Montclair’s residents and the future of the township during the economic downturn the state of emergency has wrought. Other issues will include development, housing affordability, taxes and budgeting for the future.

Spiller said the town will face unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Teamwork will be critical to confronting these challenges,” he said. “That includes bringing together diverse perspectives to address this crisis and its impact on our community. We’ve worked hard over the last eight years to make Montclair more financially sustainable… during that time we’ve been able to reduce our debt and achieve bond rating upgrades. Because of this work, we are in a stronger position to confront our challenges.”

He said the focus will be on finding ways to further protect public health, help small businesses to restart. Upon taking office, he plans to create a coronavirus recovery task force that will bring in experts, members of our small business community and nonprofit leaders to help Montclair get back on its feet.

“Beyond COVID-19, I will be laser focused on making Montclair more financially sustainable, while protecting the things that make Montclair special,” Spiller said.

Yacobellis, a first-term councilman, said he is most concerned with the economic impact of COVID-19.

“The dramatic drop in revenues the township will see and how we will account for that. I would not favor tax increases of any kind at this time. I would be willing to investigate borrowing. I would advocate hiring a grant writer as soon as possible so we can immediately begin looking for and obtaining other sources of revenue,” he said.

A top priority for Yacobellis is transportation and parking. He would like to see the implementation of the SAFE Streets plan, bike paths and an increase of senior transportation modes.

Councilman-at-large Russo said he will explore ways for continued basic services, such as public works, road maintenance, refuse collection and recycling, public safety and rapid constituent response.

“We will have to lobby the state and federal governments for the emergency funds we are due, appropriated by Congress, to keep our service levels stable and our town workforce whole. Getting small businesses back on their feet will be critical. We must rebuild our successful local economy which has attracted so many here over the years, and protect both our municipal workforce and the employees of our great small business community,” he said.

Russo, who would be entering his third term in July, said that another issue needing to be tackled is healthcare reform.

“Healthcare, in addition to the economic focus, will be a priority for a long time after this pandemic. We may have gotten into this crisis because of bad practices in the past, so social distancing, better hygiene, and enforcement of regulations by our Health Department staff will be a continuing priority for the future, especially in our schools, senior housing and gathering places such as parks. Remote learning may become more common, with a real priority of working with our educators and school leadership to provide continued instruction during this crisis and beyond,” Russo said.

Lori Price Abrams, the Third Ward victor, said the first issue to face with the COVID-19 crisis is getting residents adequate food resources.

“We have incredible institutions in our community, such as Toni’s Kitchen and Human Needs Food Pantry, which have mobilized sophisticated responses, expanding their operations to ensure that neighbors do not go hungry during this extended crisis period. As the economy is sputtering with many local businesses unable to function, it can be expected that these conditions will not resolve soon. As a councilor, I will be engaged with leaders like Anne Mernin and Mike Bruno, as well as leaders of the faith community who are engaged to bring food relief for neighbors in safe, socially distant ways,” Price Abrams said.

Establishing the recovery task force, with recruitment of locals with diverse voices and experience to serve and quickly mobilize will be among the first steps to help residents and businesses recover, she said.

New to public service, Price Abrams said she will focus on getting to know the position and the needs of my constituents.

“I will engage in meetings to learn the COVID-related and ongoing concerns of the constituencies such as members of the downtown business community, renters, seniors, and families with children, and others,” Price Abrams said.

Cummings, the new Fourth Ward Councilman, said creating the COVID-19 task force will be paramount in meeting the needs of residents — businesses, schools, families and especially our seniors — while recovering from the pandemic.

Beyond COVID-19, newcomer Cummings said he wants to get to know his colleagues and work in a collaboration to address issues for Fourth Ward constituents as well as the rest of the town.

Hurlock, who would be entering his third consecutive term representing the First Ward, did not respond to an invitation for comment on the issues that Montclair faces. Schlager, who likewise is set to serve the Second Ward for a third term, said she could not respond to Montclair Local by press time.