Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler unloaded on Chester city leaders in a ruling expanding the state Receiver’s power over the financially strapped government, accusing elected officials of nepotism and incompetence. While she did not grant Receiver Michael Doweary everything he wanted, she extended his authority to include the right to remove city council members from their city jobs and “put experienced professionals in their place.”
One example noted by the receiver was Councilman William Morgan, who fell for a phishing scheme that lost $400,000 in city funds. He failed to tell the Receiver about the loss for months.
“Councilmember Morgan can no longer serve as the head of finance and human resources,” the judge ruled. Ceisler also pointed to nepotism in her ruling, saying, “At the hearing, Receiver recounted that, at one point, the mayor’s former son-in-law, Ronald Starr, was placed in charge of economic development.”
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While city officials and the Receiver all recognize the need for economic development, Ceisler wrote, “By all accounts, the only progress Mr. Starr made on that front during his tenure was to obtain a liquor license for one of his businesses.”
The state appointed Doweary to help the financially troubled city regain footing. But he appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which has jurisdiction over him, for more control, claiming that city officials are not cooperating.
Ceisler agreed, vehemently.
“The Court concludes that all of this evidence, viewed together, demonstrates the city officials’ continued lack of transparency and lack of cooperation with (the) Receiver and his team. Even worse, Mayor Kirkland has verbally – and publicly –threatened and disrespected Receiver on more than one occasion,” Ceisler wrote.
According to testimony and court findings, Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland called Doweary the “N” word, told him to “watch your back” and “your days are numbered.” And Councilwoman Elizabeth Williams called Doweary “slave master.”
Other issues that arose during the three-day hearing included payments to a former employee in jail on child rape charges and a police chief who allowed his friends to work excessive overtime in the last year before retirement to increase their retirement pay.
You can’t ignore the fact that this is an election year, and the judge isn’t doing these city officials any favors. The timing is curious, at least.
The judge also agreed with Doweary’s request to have the city’s chief operating officer become its chief administrator to provide a “clear chain of command” for employees.
“We are grateful for the court’s 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,” said Vijay Kapoor, chief of staff to the Receiver for the City of Chester.
Kirkland referred all questions to township solicitor Ken Schuster.
Schuster said, “The city and the elected officials are carefully reviewing the Court’s decision.”
Doweary has also filed a separate bankruptcy case on behalf of the city, which is ongoing.
Frank Catania, the lawyer for Chester Water Authority, said his organization is watching the Receiver’s actions closely after attempts to pull the authority’s assets into a resolution of the city’s financial crisis. He said he does not know if the allegations about city officials are true, but he found the timing curious.
“If the Receiver’s description is correct, then this has been a problem for months — years, really. But they get this ruling now, just weeks before the filing period opens to get on the ballot for the upcoming municipal elections?”
The first day to circulate and file nomination petitions is Feb. 14.
“You can’t ignore the fact that this is an election year, and the judge isn’t doing these city officials any favors. The timing is curious, at least,” Catania said.
Linda Stein is News Editor at Delaware Valley Journal.
This article was republished with permission from the Delaware Valley Journal.