When state Rep. John Lawrence read Delaware Valley Journal’s coverage of the City of Chester’s latest financial troubles last spring, one part of the story piqued his interest.
Receiver Michael Doweary was presenting the possibility that Chester might face disincorporation due to its calamitous finances. Chester’s Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland pushed back, saying he had offered the Receiver two plans to avoid such a disaster. Kirkland said both plans involved deals with the Chester Water Authority, including selling CWA to Aqua PA.
Lawrence, a Republican representing West Grove, wanted to see Kirkland’s plans, so he filed right-to-know (RTK) requests with Chester and with the Receiver.
Here’s where the story gets strange.
Doweary denied Lawrence’s RTK requests because the agency did not have those records. The City of Chester denied the request in part because it was “a record of an agency relating to a noncriminal investigation, including a record that, if disclosed, would…deprive a person of the right to an impartial adjudication.”
In a letter to Lawrence, Doweary said, “We do not know what documents that Mayor Kirkland is referencing when he refers to ‘two credible plans.’ My office has not received any plans from Mayor Kirkland. We suggest that you make this request of Mayor Kirkland, and in the event that you receive a response, we would appreciate it if you could please provide us with that information as well.”
Attached to the letter was an affidavit from Doweary attesting to the fact that “we have not identified any records within the Agency’s possession, custody and control that are responsive to Rep. Lawrence’s Request for copies of the ‘two credible Plans’ allegedly provided by Chester City Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland.”
In addition to interfering with an investigation, Chester officials also claimed the request for the two plans would be part of “internal, pre-decisional deliberations of an agency, its members, employees or officials.”
“That’s baloney,” Lawrence told DVJournal. “Somebody’s lying. Either the records exist, or they don’t exist. That’s deeply problematic.”
Last week, Lawrence appealed Chester’s denial to the Office of Open Records (OOR).
Lawrence said the two plans mentioned by Kirkland are not exempt under the law. The two credible plans are “not deliberations themselves,” Lawrence wrote.
“Even more likely, these ‘credible plans’ include estimates, projections, actual budget figures or comparisons. In such cases, OOR has concluded that such materials are not deliberative in nature.”
And if the plans do contain some deliberative information, redacting that is the appropriate response, not denial, Lawrence said. He suggests the OOR privately review the documents to determine that issue.
As for Chester’s response regarding an investigation, Lawrence was more vehement.
“It strains the credulity for the local agency to assert that the disclosure of the Mayor’s ‘two credible plans’ for fiscal recovery of the city transmitted to the Receiver relates to a noncriminal investigation or would somehow deprive a person of their right to an impartial adjudication,” Lawrence wrote.
“As there is no investigation or probe, it bears mentioning that the local agency is equally unable to assert that providing these records would deprive the Mayor (or anyone employed by the City) of an impartial adjudication,” Lawrence wrote to the OOR.
Frank Catania, a lawyer for CWA, said one plan was likely the offer by CWA of $60 million for the city not to sell CWA, and the other plan was to sell CWA to Aqua PA. Catania said the latter would only transfer the financial burden from taxpayers to ratepayers.
Kirkland confirmed that the two plans he handed over to the Receiver early in his tenure were related to CWA. However, he said, the city’s solicitor told him they were confidential and could not be released in response to Lawrence’s RTK request. Kirkland did not know why Doweary would claim he had received no plans from Kirkland.
“That’s not true,” said Kirkland. “I gave the Receiver two plans as soon as he got here. Once again, he’s not being truthful and honest.”
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