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Montclair, New Jersey. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons).

Montclair asks judge to stop public from watching whistleblower case

Nancy Erika Smith: ‘We do not have secret hearings about discrimination and public corruption in the United States’

By David Wildstein, May 23 2023 6:43 pm

Montclair is taking steps to block public access to court proceedings involving an allegation by a township official that she faced retaliation for whistleblowing and complaining about a sexist, hostile work environment.

Padmaja Rao, Montclair’s chief financial officer, claims she was bullied after accusing Township Manager Timothy Stafford of improprieties related to health insurance for local elected officials, fraudulent time cards for the fire department, and improper public bidding.

Now the township wants to seal the proceedings, a move that would effectively padlock the courtroom and block the public from reviewing records or hearing arguments.

“We do not have secret hearings about discrimination and public corruption in the United States,” said Rao’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith.  “Our Courts are open to the public so that the public has confidence that everyone is equal under the law — even an employee of a powerful government.”

The attorney representing Montclair, Derrick Freijomil, asked Superior Court Judge Stephen Petrillo to block public access, saying some documents are “confidential, privileged, and/or otherwise protected from public disclosure.”

Smith opposes the request, arguing that the “extraordinary request from a public body is contrary to all law.”

“Montclair has brought the most extensive motion to seal information from the public that I have ever seen in my 42-year career,” she said.  “The fact that it is a public body makes that even more outrageous.”

She said the filing by Montclair failed to cite law or provide legal analysis to support their request.

“Without even attempting to meet its burden in seeking to close the Courtroom to the public, Montclair cites absolutely no law and provides no legal analysis. This is because the law is overwhelmingly against holding secret judicial proceedings,” Smith stated.  “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution mandates public judicial proceedings except in rare circumstances such as national security or child abuse.”

Montclair Councilor Peter Yacobellis told the New Jersey Globe that the Township Council isn’t consulted on issues involving strategies to defend the municipality from a lawsuit.

“It’s handled by our law department in conjunction with external counsel and our insurance carrier,” Yacobellis said.  “That said, last time I checked, Montclair isn’t responsible for national security. So I’m scratching my head trying to understand this approach and will advocate for more transparency.”

Two other councilors, Robert Russo and David Cummings, said they could not comment on pending litigation.  Three others – William Hurlock, Robin Schlager, and Lori Price Abrams — did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

But Russo, a former mayor, said he does “believe in open government and open courtrooms, which I have been teaching about at (Montclair State University) for over 20 years, and practicing on the Montclair Council for 23 years.”

Smith chastised the township for their request to hide any part of the lawsuit.

“The Township of Montclair has not taken seriously the gravity of a public entity seeking to hide information from the public,” she said.

Petrillo today rejected a request by the New Jersey Globe to livestream oral arguments on the sealing of the courtroom on Friday.

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