A Delaware County judge on Tuesday overruled the initial objections from Vincent Rongione (D) in regards to a legal request from a group of six town council members asking the judge to legally affirm the council’s efforts to fire Rongione from his township position earlier in the summer.
The ruling from Common Pleas Judge Spiros E. Angelos is not a total victory for the group of six, but at the same time keeps the request on track to receive full consideration from the bench.
Rongione, whose job as chief administrative officer has been in limbo for weeks now, took the decision in stride.
“This is a minor procedural ruling that does not impact the underlying legal questions at hand and we continue to do the work of the Township while looking forward to a speedy and just decision on the merits of the case,” he told Broad + Liberty Tuesday evening.
This first tidbit of action from the court comes as Brian Burke, a Democrat and president of the Upper Darby Township Council, has become more vocal in defending the legal actions initiated by the bipartisan group.
After the vote to fire Rongione in early June, Mayor Barbarann Keffer’s (D) administration has argued that the vote for Rongione to “forfeit” office lacked the mayor’s consent, and could be illegal or invalid in other ways. As a result, Rongione has continued to work.
The decision by Keffer and Rongione to ignore the council vote then prompted the group of six to petition a court to affirm the vote’s legality.
Burke’s defense comes amid a new lawsuit filed by Councilmember Andrew Hayman (D) alleging that the group of six violated Pennsylvnaia’s Sunshine Law, a move garnering Hayman front-page attention from the Delco Daily Times.
“While it is my view that it was not appropriate to discuss matters related to pending litigation involving the township at the July 6th meeting, it is also unquestionably my view that council has acted transparently, well within its authority as granted by the Home Rule Charter, and, most importantly, in the best interest of Upper Darby taxpayers and residents in this matter,” Burke said in a press release.
Both Hayman and Rongione are suing the council as a whole governmental body, but the suits also individually name each of the six council members who voted against Rongione: Republican council members Brian Andruszko, Lisa Faraglia, and Meaghan Wagner, alongside Democrats Matt Silva, Council Vice President Laura Wentz, and Burke.
Taking all the actions together creates the newest chapter in a Dickensian novel in which the two factions of the council — the bipartisan six who voted to fire Rongione and the five remaining Democrats who have rallied behind Mayor Keffer’s administration — are now talking to each other through the press and by court documents in a debate over what technically constitutes a lawsuit.
Councilman Matt Silva, part of the group of six, explained his reasoning why the group sought a ruling from a judge, and why he does not consider that “litigation” that the opposition group has claimed would need a vote of approval from council.
“We have no ability to remove [Rongione’s] key card. We have no ability to garnish his paycheck,” Silva told Broad + Liberty.
“The only mechanism that we have to remove him from his office would be the Upper Darby Police Department. As it stands, the Upper Darby Police Department, or the superintendent of the police department, is directly under the chief administrative officer. So the police department requested that there be a ruling as to — well, basically for a declaratory statement from a judge or, or court order to remove Mr. Rongione from his office. That is all that our attorney, Mr. [Chris] Boggs was reaching out to the county courts for. That’s it. A declaratory statement. It is not a lawsuit. It is not an injunction.”
“If their [the group of six’s] motion for declaratory judgment is not litigation, then how is it that they say that I’m filing a lawsuit? When what I filed was a motion for declaratory judgment, I filed the exact same thing in court,” Hayman said Monday by phone. “Only I did it pro se and as a private citizen. So whereas a private citizen can file that motion without a vote in public, they cannot.”
Silva countered by saying there were still important distinctions between the two legal actions.
“We’re also not asking for monetary damages. That’s something that Mr. Rongione has asked for in his lawsuit. And that’s something Mr. Hayman has asked for in his lawsuit.”
“I’m not an attorney any more than Mr. Hayman is, but I don’t understand, I guess he doesn’t understand the concept of declaratory judgment or a declaratory statement,” Silva concluded.
Councilwoman Meaghan Wagner, who is a lawyer, agreed with Silva.
“Mr Hayman’s lawsuit is completely different than our filing in that he is not asking for the court to simply enforce a council action. He’s not doing that at all. He’s personally asking for punitive damages which is completely different,” Wagner said. “Further, his lawsuit is, in my opinion, completely frivolous and a function of a personal, political vendetta.”
Members of the group of six were hopeful that a ruling would have already been handed down, but the first judge in the case later recused himself which has led to delays.
The vote to fire Rongione traces back to the February council meeting in which the township treasurer voiced concerns about various account balances, raising the possibility that some federal funds received from pandemic legislation might have been moved or spent without council approval.
Even at that early stage, the council split into the 6-5 groups, and those sets have never shifted.
Councilman Brian Andruszko lamented the political state of affairs but also reaffirmed his belief in the actions taken by the group of six.
“There are many things we would all like to get done for the residents in Upper Darby, but it feels that this is almost impossible to do until this conflict comes to resolution. Arriving at a resolution feels more and more distant with each passing day,” Andruszko said in an email.
He added the Rongione and Hayman suits “feel like an effort to stymie the action taken by the majority of council and what feels like behaviors to try and sway those council members who voted yes to Mr. Rongione forfeiting his office, to just give up on this fight.”
“We all took the oath of office knowing what came with it, but I don’t think anyone anticipated it would go to this length. We had a council member verbally harrassed [sic] and threatened just a few weeks ago. Now we are subject to what I view as frivolous lawsuits with financial fines levied against us.”
Shortly after the financial transparency issues surfaced in February, both Mayor Keffer and the group of six authorized their own financial investigations into the matter.
The investigation authorized by Keffer has concluded, with the final report from Marcum LLP essentially finding no wrongdoing. The gang of six has argued those results are incomplete because the Marcum investigators had access to only one of the township’s roughly two dozen accounts. Meanwhile, the investigation authorized by the group of six is in its final stages, and is expected to be released in September.
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