Upper Darby’s township council approved an investigation into the finances of Mayor Barbarann Keffer’s (D) administration Wednesday night, in a meeting filled with political fireworks but in which a bipartisan group of six councilors — three Democrats and three Republicans — eventually prevailed in a series of charged votes.
The investigation will be focused on tracking $20.5 million in federal funds last summer from the American Rescue Plan, and whether any of that money was improperly spent or transferred to unauthorized accounts.
The three-hour hearing was filled with political maneuvering, interruptions, and allegations. By the time a firm was approved to run the investigation, the council had gone through no fewer than six different votes.
Initially, the idea to approve an outside investigation into the mayor’s administration was presented before the full council as a resolution.
Once that happened, the investigation had to clear these hurdles to become a reality: a motion to table the resolution for an investigation was defeated; the resolution for the investigation then passed; Mayor Keffer vetoed the resolution; a vote to override the mayor’s veto failed; a motion to hire outside counsel for the investigation was tabled; the investigation proposal was then reasserted as a simple motion (i.e., not a resolution so that it could not be vetoed) to invoke Section 314 of the home rule charter, which passed; a motion was made to untable the earlier motion to hire special counsel; and finally a motion was made to hire special counsel for the investigation which passed.
All but one of those votes held true to a 6-5 pattern.
Democrat council members Hafiz Tunis Jr., Michelle Billups, Danyelle Blackwell, Andrew Hayman, and Sheikh Siddique all voted against the investigation.
Republican council members Brian Andruszko, Meaghan Wagner, and Lisa Faraglia voted in support of the investigation. They were joined by Democrats Matt Silva, Council President Brian Burke, and Council Vice President Laura Wentz.
Councilor Andrew Hayman said invoking the township’s home rule charter to approve the investigation was the first of its kind in the township’s history. Depending on the findings, it could result in the removal of Keffer’s Chief Administrative Officer, Vince Rongione.
The entire affair traces back to the city’s receipt of about $20.5 million in federal funds last summer from the American Rescue Plan, or ARP.
But the controversy over that money didn’t erupt until a council meeting on Feb. 2 when Treasurer David Haman gave a report in which he concluded that about $6 million of ARP money had either been moved inappropriately to another account or had been spent without council’s approval.
Wednesday’s vote was the culmination in a furious two weeks of politics, as the group of six demanding more transparency remained undivided as a voting block, and the remaining five council members echoed Keffer and Rongione’s sentiments that the investigation was unnecessary and politically motivated.
When Keffer vetoed the ordinance that passed towards the beginning of the meeting, she decried the investigation as “personal” and “partisan.”
“Is it partisan when it’s three Democrats and three Republicans?” Councilwoman Meaghan Wagner shot back. “How is that partisan?”
Council members who supported the mayor frequently said the investigation was redundant because Mayor Keffer has pledged to hire an accounting firm to conduct an independent audit.
Council members in support of the investigation approved $7,500 for the services, but Rongione warned that other expenses will be incurred.
“The administration also intends to seek special counsel to defend itself against these allegations,” Rongione said Wednesday night. “And that will add significant cost to this preposterous exercise.”
Councilman Silva said he thought the $7,500 cost for the investigation was appropriate, and that the accusations of a political witch-hunt were overblown.
“You keep saying it’s politics,” Silva said. “This is a political office. So, I mean, it’s not a dirty word. It is not. So, what we have to do — we are up here with a responsibility to the residents of this township. The mayor herself said ten days ago, she has nothing to hide. I urge all of my fellow council members to vote ‘yes’ on this. Let’s put this behind us. Let’s move forward.”
Last week the council voted to approve $6 million of the ARP money for payroll expenses after Keffer and Rongione warned that a government shutdown was likely because no ARP monies were approved at the Feb. 2 meeting.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports