Op-ED: Setting the Facts Straight on NJEA VP Spiller’s Run for Montclair Mayor


By Mike Lilley

Mike Lilley is the founder and president of the Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on showcasing greater transparency and sound policy solutions throughout the state.

The Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey (SPCNJ) would like to get some facts straight regarding InsiderNJ’s article “Montclair May 12th Mayoral Election: Spiller v. Baskerville.”  The article mentions SPCNJ and solicits mayoral candidate Sean Spiller’s comments about SPCNJ’s report “Councilman Spiller, Mayor Spiller, Governor Spiller?” But the article never solicited SPCNJ’s comments, allowing Spiller’s falsehoods to go unchallenged, so SPCNJ would like to respond.

First and foremost, the article states that SPCNJ “assert[s] that Spiller would face a major conflict of interest if he becomes mayor.”  But it is not merely SPCNJ’s assertion: a New Jersey Superior Court ruled that NJEA Vice President/Councilman Spiller had a real and disqualifying conflict between his fiduciary duties to NJEA members and Montclair citizens.  Spiller was duly removed from the Board of School Estimate (BoSE).  These are indisputable facts.

By running for mayor, Spiller has created the potential for similar but even greater conflicts of interest.  With the power to appoint the entire school board as well as a majority of members of the BoSE, a Mayor Spiller’s conflict of interest would be far greater than as a single councilman appointed to the BoSE.  Again, these are facts.

The article then provides Spiller’s comments.  Because he cannot question SPCNJ’s facts, Spiller questions SPCNJ’s motives: SPCNJ is a “right-wing organization with roots in the Christie era” dedicated to opposing “the traditional public school system in any way it can.”

But SPCNJ is not a “right-wing” organization.  It is a non-partisan, non-profit research think-tank.  As the article states, “Montclair is anything but a right-wing community,” so Spiller hopes that by levelling such a charge he can cast a cloud of suspicion over SPCNJ.  But the fact is that SPCNJ’s research has presented positive and negative facts about both Republicans and Democrats.  Shining a light on New Jersey’s special-interest-dominated political system and the most powerful special interest of all, the NJEA, is not a partisan activity.  It is presenting the facts and SPCNJ defies anyone to show where SPCNJ’s research is not factual.

It is also a fact that SPCNJ has never expressed a view about New Jersey’s “traditional public school system,” and it is false to claim otherwise.

As for supposed connections to Governor Christie, SPCNJ was founded in 2019 and Governor Christie left office in 2017.  SPCNJ has nothing to do with Christie and SPCNJ can assure readers that he would say he has nothing to do with us.  Spiller of course knows that Governor Christie was very unpopular in Montclair and again is trying to cast a cloud over SPCNJ in order to avoid addressing uncomfortable facts.

Moreover, isn’t it curious that, as the article reports, Spiller had no problem taking $1,000 from Mike DuHaime, the very well known, long-time political advisor to Christie? Likewise, Spiller clearly has no problem with running mate Bill Hurlock, a registered Republican and donor to President Trump.  Evidently such guilt by association – even if it is false – only matters if it impedes Spiller path to the mayor’s office.

Spiller then reveals why he is attacking SPCNJ: “my values are more in-line with our community than the Sunlight Policy Center.” But the fact is that SPCNJ is not running for mayor.  We are simply presenting facts about Spiller’s conflicts of interest.  Spiller is using the classic tactic of setting up a “straw man” to destroy so that he can avoid dealing with the real issue: his conflicts of interest.

As for his conflicts of interest, Spiller deflects them by saying he would appoint “independent” members to the school board, but Spiller’s personal assurances were clearly insufficient as a defense against the Superior Court’s ruling, and they are insufficient here.  No wonder he would rather attack a straw man.  His potential conflicts with his BoSE role go unaddressed.

Finally, SPCNJ wants to make clear that it is not endorsing or opposing any candidate in this race. This race is in Montclair, but the issue of such conflicts of interest is a statewide issue.  SPCNJ will continue to shine a light on the facts about New Jersey’s special-interest-dominated political system.

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