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In Chester Mayor’s Race, Democrat Stefan Roots May Face Off Against…Himself?

Stefan Roots has beaten Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland in the Democratic primary for Chester mayor and will be on the ballot in November. And it’s possible Roots may be running against himself.

Without a Republican candidate in the race, the GOP nominee will be determined by the results of the 205 write-in ballots. And given that Roots has received a significant number of write-in votes from Republicans in the past, speculation is rife within City Hall that he is likely to be the GOP nominee, too.

Delaware County Spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said the county was still counting votes and could not confirm on Thursday whether the write-in Republican votes were for Roots or other candidates.

Roots told DVJournal on Wednesday that if he did get the most Republican write-in votes, it wasn’t part of his plan.

“I did not cross-file,” Roots said. “So, if Republicans voted for me, I’d be curious to know how many.”

“When I ran for council, I got 94 write-ins. Between then and now, I learned that if I’d gotten to 100, that would automatically put me on the ballot in the fall. I guess I’m a Republican and a Democrat. I’ll be competing against myself.”

Roots mentioned in a May 16 article that he was confident he would get enough Republican votes to run in November.

Asked about that article that mentions Republicans voting for him, Roots said it was not part of his strategy, but he would not be surprised, given that he had 94 Republican write-in votes when he ran for council, that more Republicans would write his name in.

“I assumed it was the same 94 plus at least six more,” he said when asked to clarify his remarks. Since he has been on council, he said more people know about him. “There was not any effort on my part. If they did it on their own, they did it on their own.”

On the Democrat side, Roots received 2,027 votes to Kirkland’s 730. Patricia Worrell tallied 552.

Kirkland did not respond to requests for comment.

Roots, a blogger and councilman, campaigned on the promise that he would offer a fresh start for the beleaguered city, which is under the control of a state Receiver because of longstanding financial difficulties.

“There will be changes,” said Roots. “I think the degree to which things will change will probably be more incremental than a big bang.”

Roots added, “There’s the Receiver, and court cases will be heard and hopefully settled even before I take office, which won’t be until January.”

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” said Roots. “You know, I wish I could wave a magic wand and throw all the appeals out the window and just focus on getting things right. But our mayor and council members have chosen to challenge receivership in the direction the courts want to go. I’m still a council person, and I can’t reverse any of that in the meantime.”

Asked about Covanta, the trash incinerator that has been an issue for many Chester residents, Roots said he would be more aggressive than Kirkland in demanding benefits for the city from Covanta.

“I’m looking to work with them to partner in beautifying Chester,” said Roots. “It’s long overdue. They want to be a partner, and I don’t think the city has asked enough of them up until now. They’re going to hear my knock at the door quite often.”

Roots said there are seven months for him and his team to make the transition to a new administration.

“The team I’ve assembled is champing at the bit,” said Roots. Chester has been losing “one brick at a time,” he said. “It’s time to put the pieces back together again in the other direction.”

As a little reward for winning, Roots went to his favorite shoe store Wednesday morning and bought himself a new pair of black dress shoes.

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FOP, Delaware County File Briefs in Chester Receiver Case

The state Fraternal Order of Police and the Delaware County Council filed  friend of the court briefs in support of the Chester Receiver in a case pending in the state Supreme Court.

The Receiver is seeking to strip local elected officials from their roles as heads of city departments and instead appoint what he believes are qualified individuals to run Chester. That would affirm a January decision by a Commonwealth Court judge.

The FOP legal brief brandishes harsh wording, blaming Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland and city officials for the city’s dire financial straits. The county’s brief uses more measured language, saying it has a vested interest in Chester’s recovery.

“The recovery plan will be the only way the municipality will get back on its feet,” Delaware County said in its brief. “The only alternative to a successful Act 47 process is chaos. The Commonwealth cannot allow one of its cities to devolve into chaos.”

In her January ruling, Judge Ellen Ceisler blasted city officials for nepotism and self-dealing. She ordered them to step down and allow the Receiver to appoint qualified individuals to run the city’s departments.

“Unfortunately, the promise of a secure pension has been broken by the City of Chester,” the FOP brief said. “This matter involves, among other acts of malfeasance, the complete and utter failure of the city to comply with the statutory requirements relating to the financial solvency of defined benefit pensions for law enforcement officers such as those employed by the City of Chester and all law enforcement officers through the commonwealth.”

That has resulted in a $40 million deficit in the police pension plan, the filing stated. The deficit threatens the financial security of former and current police officers who are and have been employed by the city. The city’s conduct provides no realistic hope that “it will change its methods of operations and make the required MMO (minimum municipal obligation) payments.”

It also accuses the mayor of failing to make the payments with “full knowledge and intent.”

The county noted that other financially distressed cities, such as Harrisburg and Johnstown, have gone through the process with state control and come out of it with their problems resolved.

“This is a very important case, and it’s clear from the FOP’s and Delaware County’s filings that it’s not just the Receiver who recognizes that,” said Vijay Kapoor, chief of staff for Receiver Michael Doweary.

Last month Doweary said Chester’s government might have to be disincorporated or dissolved if it does not come out of insolvency by the end of the year. Former Gov. Tom Wolf appointed Doweary to help the cash-strapped municipality three years ago. But Doweary has claimed in court filings that city officials have thwarted him at every turn.

Frank Catania, a lawyer for the Chester Water Authority, said there is more to this situation than the court documents might suggest. Chester has been under state oversight for decades, said Catania. And instead of improving, the situation has gotten much worse.

“There’s a dispute as to how much of that (lack of retirement fund payments) is the city’s fault and how much of that is the state’s fault,” said Catania. “And neither filing addresses the issue of the state’s involvement or responsibility.”

“And I think it’s not fair to the city or the mayor to have him blamed for this when the city has been under Act 47 supervision for almost 30 years,” said Catania. “I mean, all of this happened when the state was supposedly overseeing (it),” he said. And about the county council’s filing, “It’s more politics than policy,” he said.

Council wants “regime change” in Chester, said Catania. “This is being done 13 days before the primary.”

“And I don’t read it as an expression of support for any particular policy,” said Catania. “I believe it to be a political act.”

Mayor Kirkland did not respond to requests for comment.

The state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the case on May 24.

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Receiver: Chester’s Dire Financial Straits May Lead to Disincorporation

The official charged with overseeing the City of Chester’s dismal finances is predicting the city might reach the point where it will be disincorporated or dissolved.

Michael Doweary, the receiver appointed three years ago by former Gov. Tom Wolf to help pull the cash-strapped municipality out of insolvency, blamed elected city officials who filed appeals to block a bankruptcy and who also appealed court-approved modifications to the receiver’s plans.

Chester needs a plan by the end of 2023, or it will cease to exist as a municipality, Doweary said.

Vijay Kapoor, Doweary’s chief of staff, called the situation “sobering.”

“Chester is really running out of time,” Kapoor said. “There needs to be a focus right now on solving Chester’s problems. If a comprehensive solution is not found by the end of the year, there may be no alternative for Chester but disincorporation.”

If that were to happen, all municipal employees would be fired while the city’s elected officials would be dismissed. A state administrator would then oversee the municipality as a disenfranchised territory.

Kapoor claimed that if a bankruptcy lawyer had not brokered a bargain with bondholders, the city would be out of money by this September.

The city’s newly completed 2019 audit showed a $6.8 million loss and a negative $27.7 million fund balance. Also, the city has not made $40 million in payments to its pension fund.

Kapoor said Chester would need a $5 million loan in January to make its payroll.

And in 2025, Chester faces “a significant fiscal cliff,” said Doweary.

“If you’re out of money, you can’t keep the lights on. Chester’s financial situation is critical, and it is running out of time to find a solution,” he said.

When Kapoor said city officials had not devised their own plan, Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland objected.

“We provided the Receiver with two credible plans,” said Kirkland. Both involved deals with the Chester Water Authority (CWA), including selling it to Aqua PA.

“Offers to monetize (that asset) are not a comprehensive plan,” Doweary countered. “Those were just offers for the system, not a plan.

“Bankruptcy is the only thing to bring all of the creditors to the table.”

Elected officials have been unwilling to cut back on pensions, one of the biggest items of bloat in the city budget. Kirkland said one former employee, whose husband died, told him: “How am I going to make it if you cut my pension?”

CWA lawyer Frank Catania said CWA is the only entity that has offered to help Chester, proposing in 2019 to give the city $60 million in exchange for dropping any efforts to take over or sell the authority.

“It’s not a solution to sell (CWA) to Aqua,” he said of the city’s current fiscal crisis. Doing that “shifts the burden from Chester to the ratepayers.”

“The city (Chester) is in a bad spot (financially),” Catania said. He asked why the state has not given Chester a deal like those it gave to Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, which have also run into financial difficulties over the years.

Last year, the legislature and Wolf approved an extension of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority’s oversight of Philadelphia until 2047.

“The state has overseen Chester for more than 25 years,” said Catania. “I think they have an obligation to help it, and rather than offer to help, they let the problem get much, much worse.

“It’s hard to conclude anything other than it was done on purpose.”

Catania also cited recent remarks by Philadelphia mayoral candidate Jeff Brown, saying many people in state government share his attitude.

A spokesperson for Gov. Josh Shapiro did not respond when asked about state help for Chester.

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear appeals on the Chester cases. In the meantime, said Kapoor, elected officials have resumed their control of various city departments after a Commonwealth Court judge had ousted them.

In that ruling, Judge Ellen Ceisler blasted city officials for nepotism and self-dealing.

Also, federal grant programs that came online due to COVID are ending, so Chester may have to lay off some 20 people in January.

“We need to have a plan in place by the end of the year,” said Doweary.

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Chester Mayor Called Receiver the ‘N’ Word, Judge Says, In Ruling Blasting City Leaders

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.”

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.

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 February 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.

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‘A Robbery in Progress:’ Chester Water Cries Foul Over Receiver’s Bankruptcy Move

When Receiver Michael T. Doweary filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy last Thursday for the City of Chester, he said it was the only way to resolve the city’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

“Chester’s financial and operational problems are far worse than my team of professionals has ever encountered. The status quo has not worked, is not working, and will not work. The residents of Chester deserve better,” Doweary said in a press release. He pointed to a projected $46.5 million deficit in 2023, including $39.8 million in past-due pension payments.

But representatives for the Chester Water Authority (CWA), locked in a struggle against the city’s bid to sell the CWA to Aqua PA, it was just the latest misstep by the city’s state-appointed overseer. And it leaves far too many unanswered questions.

“The Receiver has had two and half years to turn Chester around,” said CWA attorney Frank Catania, pointing to several high-profile fiascos like the city losing $400,000 through an internet phishing scam on the Receiver’s watch.

And, Catania added, Doweary did not tell the Commonwealth Court that Chester stands to gain $70 million through the sale of DELCORA (Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority) to Aqua or, alternatively, get its sewer systems back so it could sell them itself.

“It’s a robbery in progress,” said Catania of Doweary’s revised Receivership document. Doweary is “trying to shift the burden (of paying for water and sewer) from government to citizens,” both in Chester and in parts of Delaware and Chester counties. Some 80 percent of CWA customers are suburban and if Doweary has his way, those customers will subsidize the city.”

“The Receiver uses bank robber’s logic: I need money. You have money. I’m taking it.”

Doweary declined to respond to repeated requests for comment. In a press release, he said he avoided bankruptcy as long as possible, and he pointed fingers at city officials.

“Since my appointment over two-and-a-half years ago, I have worked to avoid this day,” Doweary said. “However, Chester has a severe structural deficit that cannot be addressed by one-time fixes, has unaffordable retiree benefit liabilities, and cannot reliably provide vital and necessary services to its residents.”

According to Doweary, Chester’s elected officials and employees are not cooperating with his stewardship. For example, Councilman William Morgan lost the money to the phishing scam — involving a fake request for payment — in June, but he was not notified until three months later. He also pointed to a $750,000 IRS penalty against Chester for incorrect payroll taxes and to a salary being paid to an incarcerated former employee.

Doweary acknowledges he is seeking more control over city operations and also wants the court to award him control over the CWA. He also asked the court to tell employees and elected officials that they must not interfere with the directives of the chief operating officer or the Receiver.

What the Receiver won’t discuss, however, is the city’s outstanding debt for the high-powered law firm, Greenberg Traurig, for a $1 million contingency fee. How could Chester, struggling to pay its bills, afford to pay $1 million?

DVJournal has requested the underlying documents related to retaining Greenburg Traurig, but the Receiver has declined to provide them or explain what work the firm was supposed to provide to the taxpayers of Chester.

CWA is in litigation with the Receiver. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled before the state Supreme Court on Nov. 30.  However, a bankruptcy filing stays other court cases. Lawyers are meeting with a bankruptcy court on Tuesday.  Also, at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, the Municipal Financial Recover Advisory Committee will meet. That meeting will be streamed. 

“[Doweary] is court shopping,” said Catania. “He wants to avoid the Supreme Court and go to Commonwealth Court.”

“He’s going to try to convince (the Commonwealth Court) judge that he should be in charge of CWA,” added Catania.  “He couldn’t even make sure the city that Chester had proper insurance coverage and he wants to sell the water authority and serve 200,000 customers fresh drinking water? It’s outrageous. He’s got to be stopped. He did not tell the court the whole story that Chester stands to get $70 million from the sale of DELCORA.”

Instead of a Receiver, the state should step up for Chester, like it previously did Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, said Catania.

“This is an orchestrated crisis,” said Catania. “And whenever it’s convenient, Doweary brings the city retirees out for public relations purposes.

“He treated Chester retirees as hostages,” he said.

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GIORDANO: Rays of Light in 2021, Hopeful for a Better Year in 2022

It’s been a great first year writing a column for this new and much needed media outlet. Most of my columns have been about alerting readers to any number of negative things happening across the Delaware Valley. I thought for the last column of the year, I’d give you some rays of life that I see developing in our area. I’m not talking about the bright sunshine of an 80-degree day on a Wildwood beach but some hopeful bits of sunshine that might brighten up in 2022.

The best example of this is the recent pushback against Larry Krasner for his attempts recently to minimize the violence and chaos that have overrun Philadelphia. On my radio show I was joined by former District Attorney Seth Williams, former Governor Ed Rendell, and former Mayor Michael Nutter. All three were personally offended by Krasner and Nutter was particularly offended by Krasner posturing as the Great White Hope in Black and Brown communities.

Williams made the case that Krasner’s pride and ideology were blocking Philadelphia from implementing the strategies that the City of Chester is using to significantly lower violent crime, particularly homicides. Essentially, law enforcement is targeting those in Chester who are most likely to be carrying illegal guns and commit a murder. They tell these people that they will help them get a job and an education but if they are caught with a gun, they will get the most severe penalty. Krasner will not sign off on a plan like Chester’s. These results in Chester demand that we use them to turn up the heat on Krasner.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running for governor as a Democrat who wants to use every means to turn around homicide rates in Philadelphia. He is great at posing in this role, but he refuses to call out Krasner. I’m hoping that a strong field of Republican candidates will be able to use this dilemma to defeat Shapiro in what I view is the most important race in America. The reason is that which ever party wins will control the election infrastructure for the big presidential race in 2024.

A big ray of light in 2021 came through the person of Clarice Schillinger who organized thousands of parents into a group Back to School Pa. that fought to stop shutdowns of schools. She then went on to quarterback the winning of 133 school board seats in Pennsylvania in the most recent election cycle. Watch for her as a force in Pennsylvania politics in an even bigger way in 2022.

In New Jersey newly elected state Senator Ed Durr was Gloucester County will be a big force in New Jersey politics. I’ve interviewed him twice and he has a tremendous sense of the hope he represents for people who have suffered under extremely progressive rule in New Jersey. He knows that those progressive elements will do anything to snuff out this hope and he is positioning himself already for his next race in a few years. Of course, he’ll stay grounded by still driving a furniture truck as his day job.

Maybe the most hopeful signal for the next year is that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has been stopped from continuing his one-man rule of Pennsylvania that unnecessarily shut down schools and businesses. Many school districts across the area have decided to empower parents to make the choice about whether or not to have their kids wear masks while in school.

I am very hopeful that 2022 will be a good year that will see better safety and prosperity for everyone across the Delaware Valley.

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