A Commonwealth Court judge in Delaware County ruled Tuesday that a vote by the Upper Darby Township Council to fire the mayor’s appointed chief administrative officer violated provisions of the state’s Sunshine Act, which requires certain action items be clearly listed on an agenda that is accessible to the public prior to the meeting where the item will be voted on.
The six members of council who had voted in June to fire Chief Administrative Officer Vincent Rongione (D) had asked a court to affirm the legality of its actions.
The group of six says that by dismissing the case because of the Sunshine Act, Judge Spiros E. Angelos, Jr., has sidestepped the larger issue of whether those members of the township council had the authority to fire Rongione using the “forfeiture of office” clause in the township’s home rule charter.
Mayor Barbarann Keffer, a Democrat who appointed Rongione to the CAO post, celebrated the ruling.
“I am thankful that the court has upheld the right of the people to participate in their government and to be fully informed of upcoming votes and agendas,” Mayor Keffer said in a press release. “The willful violation of the Sunshine Act is very disrespectful to our residents and staff. We have lost countless hours since June 1 on this topic. I hope this decision will restore some sense of sanity and good faith to our Council. Now is the time to move forward, and I am eager to work with Council, CAO Rongione, and the community to do just that.”
READ MORE — Judge lets legal request move forward seeking to affirm Upper Darby administrator’s firing
Rongione also echoed Keffer’s remarks about moving past the conflict, and then went further.
“Every reasonable person associated with this matter knew the vote violated the law from the beginning, including the people who took it,” Rongione said.
The bipartisan group of six — three Republicans, and three Democrats which include the council’s president and vice president — voted 6-5 to fire Rongione in early June.
At that June meeting, the agenda item was listed as “Article 5 of the Home Rule Charter- ALL sections[.]” Article 5 allows that the position of chief administrative officer can be forfeited if certain criteria are met, such as “[lacking] at any time during his term of office any qualification for the office as prescribed by this Charter or by law.”
Keffer and Rongione have essentially argued that the agenda item should have been more explicit.
The members of council who voted to fire Rongione asked a judge to affirm their actions not because of Sunshine Law issues, but because there appeared to be room for dispute as to whether the council could take the action of firing Rongione by itself and without the mayor.
At a council meeting on Aug. 17, the group of six allied against Rongione went through the motions of firing him a second time, this time listing the agenda item with more explicit language of: “Motion to ratify the June 1, 2022 action of the Upper Darby Township Council Meeting … to find that Mr. Rongione has forfeited his position as CAO” according to the home rule charter.
Despite the second vote to relieve Mr. Rongione of his duties, he continues to apply the title to himself, and continues in many township duties, as evidenced by the press release given out by Keffer.
But the Aug. 17 meeting is why the group of six are filing a motion for reconsideration.
“We have submitted a Motion to Reconsider the Ruling because of [the] August 17th Meeting, we Ratified the June 1st Vote,” said council Vice President Laura Wentz (D) in an email.
“We did not intentionally Violate the Sunshine Act. We believed that by indicating Article V All Sections, it would be sufficient for the Sunshine Act,” Wentz added.
“The merits of the argument have not been reached and in Judge Angelos’ ruling, it indicates that the Home Rule Charter doesn’t declare whether or not the Mayor or Twp Council must both approve Forfeiture of the CAO, In my Opinion,” Wentz concluded.
I am glad the judge has finally ruled on this case. It’s time for all of us to get back to work for the people of Upper Darby.
Councilwoman Meaghan Wagner (R), who initiated much of the action at the June meeting, expressed no regrets, and was ready to press on.
“I feel strongly about the action that I took at the June 1 council meeting, and I stand by that decision,” Wagner said to Broad + Liberty. “I feel Vince, still, to this day, is woefully unqualified and inadequate to hold that position. And I hope we will see a decision from the judge on the actual merits.”
Councilman Brian Andruszko (R), said advice on June 1 regarding the Sunshine Act was not as cut and dried as some might portray.
“I also would like to highlight that Solicitor Kilkenny, the Township Solicitor, who has stated he has a conflict on this issue, never explicitly stated that our vote would violate the Sunshine Act. His quote from that evening is as follows: “It’s our recommendation that that this motion clearly be stated on a future agenda — that being said, if council is comfortable moving forward tonight under the advice of Mr. Boggs, that’s your purview.””
Still to play out is the final report from attorney Chris Boggs from his investigation into the township’s finances, especially its handling of about $20 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Disagreement over how those monies were stored in the last months of 2021 ignited the entire controversy and the many legal battles that have ensued.
Boggs also was counsel for the group of six in the motion ruled upon today by Judge Angelos.
Keffer emailed Broad + Liberty with a statement beyond what she issued in the earlier press release.
“I want to be clear: Vince Rongione has continually served the township as CAO this entire time. There was never a doubt in my mind that this council vote was invalid,” Keffer said.
“That being said, I would like to emphasize the huge amount of time and resources squandered over the last three months: public council meetings were cut short because CAO Rongione had zoomed into the meetings, the council vice president contacted the police to request that the CAO be physically removed from the township building (that didn’t happen), the council president returned a check signed by the CAO (which only served to delay the payment). I am glad the judge has finally ruled on this case. It’s time for all of us to get back to work for the people of Upper Darby.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports