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Pa. judge grants Chester city receiver permission to strip elected city officials of administrative powers

  • Kenny Cooper/WHYY
Chester City Hall at East 4th Street and Avenue of the States.

 Emma Lee / WHYY

Chester City Hall at East 4th Street and Avenue of the States.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler has granted Chester’s state-appointed receiver Michael Doweary permission to strip the city’s elected officials of their administrative powers.

With Delaware County’s only city facing bankruptcy, Ceisler ruled on Tuesday that the trial which uncovered deep-rooted issues of mismanagement and unethical behavior convinced her this decision was “not only permissible, but necessary.”

“The testimony presented at the hearing revealed to the Court a culture of denial, blame-shifting, arrogance, and nepotism within the City’s government. The testimony also demonstrated the existence of significant operational issues within the City’s departments, as well as City officials’ lack of transparency, lack of cooperation, and blatant disrespect of Receiver and his team,” Ceisler wrote in her ruling.

Doweary filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the city in November. While tough circumstances can often bring different sides together, the already-weak relationship between the receiver’s office and city officials has only fractured even more.

The receiver alleged the city’s elected officials, who also serve as heads for Chester’s various departments, have been behaving unethically and obstructing his office from doing its job to save the city from financial ruin.

Doweary decided to take the city to court in a nearly unprecedented move to take away the administrative duties of Chester’s elected officials, including Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland.

During the three-day trial in January, city officials argued that the suspension of some of their administrative roles was a significant overstep and a violation of municipal code.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing the receiver brought forth a series of troubling instances, painting a picture of a city government plagued with serious issues of mismanagement and transparency.

From allegations that Kirkland physically threatened the receiver to an overall lack of cooperation in financial investigations, the receiver’s office recounted numerous examples of poor behavior within Chester city government.

“These incidents, together with the evidence of widespread nepotism within the City’s government, demonstrate a pattern of City officials taking care of their own and intentionally turning their backs on wrongdoing within their departments,” Ceisler wrote. “Further exacerbating these problems is the Mayor’s assignment of Council members as department heads based on their loyalty to City Council and the Mayor’s own inclination in a particular year, rather than on the person’s actual qualifications to oversee a particular area. These practices cannot continue.”

While Ceisler struck down several smaller propositions to Chester’s recovery plan from the receiver’s office such as giving the receiver the ability to hire contractors on behalf of the city or the power to enter into contracts on behalf of the city, the court granted the receiver his biggest request.

“The Court concludes that not only is there no clear and convincing evidence that the Plan Modification is arbitrary, capricious, or wholly inadequate to alleviate the City’s fiscal emergency, but the credible evidence establishes that Receiver’s proposed initiatives are necessary to help Receiver and his team work constructively with the COO (soon to become the Chief of Staff) and the elected officials to save the City from the brink of financial doom,” Ceisler wrote.

The court is asking the receiver to file an amended recovery plan modification addressing the proposed initiatives Ceisler struck down no later than Feb. 13.

WHYY News reached out to both the receiver’s office and a spokesperson for the city for comment.

Vijay Kapoor, chief of staff to the receiver, responded with a written statement.

“We are still reviewing the Court’s order, but from an initial read, we are grateful for the decision which we believe brings desperately needed clarity to City operations and the ability to ensure professional management all to the benefit of City residents,” Kapoor said.

A spokesperson for the city declined to comment.

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