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Upper Darby Mayor Accused of ‘Playing Politics’ With Community Projects

Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer, a Democrat, is not running for re-election, but she’s at the center of the township’s current political debate.

Council President Brian Burke, a Republican running for her job, criticized her Tuesday for failing to release more than $13 million in funding earmarked for capital improvements.

“These ordinances were negotiated and approved by the council in a bipartisan manner and approved at our July and August meetings by unanimous votes,” Burke said. “But Mayor Keffer has decided to hold hostage funding and projects out of pettiness and political calculations. Residents need to understand that Mayor Keffer is playing political games with the services and finances of Upper Darby and call on her to do the right thing by releasing the funding already passed into law by Council.”

According to Burke, council approved ordinances for a new senior center in Pilgrim Gardens, long overdue park upgrades, business district improvements throughout the township, upgrades to the township’s firehouses, purchase of a new fire truck and three new trash trucks, a new arts and education youth facility in Barclay Square, and facility and equipment upgrades for the police department.

The allocation of the $10.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Allocation (ARPA) funding was approved by a unanimous 11-0 vote of Upper Darby Council on August 2, 2023, as well as an additional $2.825 million was approved by a unanimous vote of Council on July 12, 2023.

Keffer has refused to act.

Keffer also refuses to follow ordinances approved by the council, including negotiating a lease for the Upper Darby Senior Center to be located in the Pilgrim Gardens Shopping Center. The lease and programs are fully funded for three years with unanimous Council approval of the ARPA allocation. The Mayor’s refusal to negotiate and move forward with these ordinances puts the viability of these capital and service upgrades at risk when the administration is seeking to impose a new Earned Income Tax to make such investments.

Councilwoman Laura Wentz, a Democrat and chair of the township Council’s finance committee, also accused the Keffer administration of “playing politics.”

“They empowered residents and unions to protest council meetings to ‘free the funds’, yet only a fraction of the funds have been invested in our community or unencumbered since we began to allocate them in September 2022.

“Their actions imply this mayor is hoping her party is victorious in November’s election so she can reverse these historic investments in our community and rewrite the ordinances to cover up her inability to follow a budget and be responsible with taxpayer dollars. She is basically disenfranchising the voters of Upper Darby by refusing to follow laws passed by a democratically elected Council,” Wentz said.

Burke believes Keffer is so intent on not giving some members of township council “wins” prior to the November election, such as the reopening of the senior center in Pilgrim Gardens, that she is willing to hurt the community.

The bipartisan approval of the ARPA funding allocations, which are mainly going to capital improvements, are consistent with a key recommendation made by the township’s municipal finance consultant, Public Financial Management (PFM), at a town hall meeting that Keffer held on September 20. PFM recommends that the funds not be used to temporarily cover the township’s operating/budget deficits. PFM noted that investing in needed infrastructure projects would “reduce the pressure to issue new debt, which has a recurring cost.”

The $13 million in funding approved unanimously by the council includes allocations for the following capital project initiatives:

  • Parks and Recreation: $2.26 million in total for improvements to Drexel Gardens ($75,000); Dermond Field for flood mitigation and two pickleball courts ($400,000); Scullion Field ($50,000); Naylor’s Run ($1 million); James Street ($25,000); Penn Pines ($50,000); Fernwood, McKinley, Oxford and Chapman ($100,000); Clark ($25,000); Windermere ($50,000); Huey ($10,000); Golf Road ($25,000); Sellers ($50,000); 69th Street ($400,000).
  • Upper Darby Business District Revitalization: $3.8 million for improvements to the business districts of Downtown Drexel Hill ($1 million); 69th Street ($1 million); West Chester Pike Business District ($1,000,000); Long Lane ($600,000); Garret Road East ($100,000); Garret Road West ($100,000).
  • Watkins Center: $250,000 for renovations
  • Fire Department and volunteer fire stations $1.9 million, including  $100,000 for renovations to the volunteer firehouses of Garrettford, Primos-Secane, Cardington, Highland Park and West Chester Pike; $1.4 million for the purchase of a firetruck at the discretion of the chief of the Fire Department.
  • Upper Darby Police Department: $2 million for upgrades, equipment, vehicles, and the purchase of property to enable the Department to operate efficiently to protect and serve the township’s residents.
  • Sanitation: $825,000 for the acquisition of three new fire trucks
  • Upper Darby Arts & Education Foundation: $800,000 to Create the Barclay Square Arts and Education Center (Rent, Remodeling & Operational Costs)
  • Reopening the Pilgrim Gardens Senior Center: $1.2 million for the Senior Center Lease and Improvements.

Burke also blasted Keffer for her poor financial oversight of the Upper Darby Township government. This prompted PFM to recommend that Upper Darby adopt an Earned Income Tax. PFM’s work on behalf of the township is funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development through its Strategic Township Management Program, a program available to municipalities in the commonwealth on the verge of being officially designated “Fiscally Distressed” under the auspices of Pennsylvania’s Distressed Municipalities Act 47.

The City of Chester is a municipality under state control through Act 47.

That recommendation was part of a presentation by PFM at a Sept. 20 town hall meeting that Keffer called. At the meeting, PFM painted a dim picture of Upper Darby’s financial future, noting that in 2024, the township’s budget deficit is projected to be $8.4 million, nearly 10 percent of the township budget.

In July 2022, S&P Global Ratings downgraded Upper Darby’s credit rating from A+ to A with a negative outlook, citing a string of budget deficits, low reserves, and a reliance on federal stimulus funds to balance the budget. Since then, the credit rating agency has withdrawn its rating entirely because the township cannot be rated because the Keffer Administration had not completed the needed financial audits.

While those reports are complete, they show the township is in such poor financial condition that the administration does not want to bring them to the credit rating agencies.

“In less than four years, Mayor Keffer has driven Upper Darby Township’s finances into the ground and failed to take proactive efforts to address the financial challenges until it was too late,” said Burke.

Keffer did not respond to a request for comment. Asked to comment, Ed Brown, now serving as school board president and the Democrat running for mayor, also declined.

DVJournal asked Burke why Keffer was holding up these projects, and Burke said he believes she hopes Brown is elected.

Burke said he went through the township’s finances and found $3 million unused from a now unlikely community center plan. He offered to use that money to lower any possible tax increase, but Alison Dobbins, the acting chief administrative officer, has not replied.

“It’s been three days, and I haven’t heard from her,” said Burke.

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Confidential Audit Details Upper Darby Mistakes That Led to Unpaid Parking Ticket Fiasco

The Delaware Valley Journal obtained a copy of a confidential audit of the Upper Darby parking ticket scandal that resulted in a class action lawsuit lodged against the township.

The audit, really more of a report by the accounting firm Brinker Simpson, does not include some of the information that most people would like to know, such as exactly how many parking tickets did not reach the courts and how much money did the township fail to collect as a result.

Instead, it details how employees failed to send the tickets to the courts after a software change and that there appeared to be no oversight from the township administration under Mayor Barbarann Keffer.  Keffer did not respond to voicemail or email requests for comments on Wednesday.

“Before January 2021, there were no issues with unpaid parking tickets filed with the (courts),” the report said. “The change to the new Passport software system was not managed successfully, and there appears to have been no centralized decision-making. Our analysis indicates the township lacked the project management procedures and internal controls to prevent the breakdown that occurred as it related to the unpaid parking tickets and the failure of Upper Darby to timely submit the citations to the (courts)…the transition from the old system to the new system was not successful.”

The audit said, “The internal controls in the Parking Department are currently unsatisfactory to safeguard township assets, and we are making recommendations to clearly define levels of responsibilities through documented procedures and financial oversight.”

Also, “we were not able to identify a project manager or project team responsible for implementation of a strategic plan a schedule or oversight to ensure new software would have the functionality, integration and technical support needed….”

The audit said the township had two IT consultants who reported to two different managers.

In January 2020, the parking director was appointed as director of parking enforcement, and the audit said her emails were not forwarded. Also, the new program, Passport, did not have a direct interface with the courts, and it still doesn’t, the audit said.

And the parking department did not follow the court-required process of ensuring ticket batches were received.   The last files the courts received were in April 2021, until those sent in 2023.

In May 2022, Keffer and her administrative officer took steps to make parking violations civil rather than criminal issues.

The audit said that from 2016 to 2020, revenue from parking meter fines increased by $207,075. Parking lot revenue and district court fines decreased by $73,000 but included licenses and inspections.

In 2022, citation revenue increased by $130,000 to $599,433.

“Our findings suggest that a lack of communication and centralized oversight, restrictive access to IT support, and lack of internal controls and documented procedures led to the failure of parking tickets being filed timely with the state,” the audit said. “Evidence suggests that there was not a clear understanding of the complexities of the administration of the department that relied on consistent communication with (the courts), police, and IT, especially when adding new software.”

Constable Jack Kelly asked DA Jack Stollsteimer to investigate the parking ticket mess. Kelly said there are 15,000 to 22,000 unpaid parking tickets docketed most years.

“They bypassed the process and never sent anything to the courts,” he said. And people who did not their tickets paid never received their court summonses.

And then some cars got “booted,” he said.

“What gives you the right to boot somebody who has not been before  a judge?” Kelly asked.

Former Upper Darby Mayor Tom Micozzie blamed Keffer for firing all the people who knew how the township was run immediately after taking office.

“That’s a problem,” said Micozzie. “A serious problem. How can you run a $98 million corporation (the township) with 427 employees? I get you’re entitled to your own administration, which really means your CAO…But then you get into firing the L&I, the finance director…I would not have had him out on the first day, in the middle of budget.”

Council President Brian Burke said a court clerk reported the township suddenly sent 18,000 unpaid tickets through. At $35 a ticket, that would be $630,000 in revenue uncollected, not to mention additional penalties.

“I believe there’s a lot of problems,” he said. During a council meeting, Burke pressed solicitor Sean Kilkenny about why the township did not respond proactively to a Feb. 7 letter from the court about the missing parking tickets, Broad + Liberty reported. The Delaware County Court administrator then sent another letter about the tickets on May 1.

Vince Rangione, who had been the township’s chief administrative officer, left office in January after months of controversy and secured a severance deal from the township that allowed him to keep his salary through July 31 and health benefits until the end of the year.

The confidential report includes his memos to staff telling them they could not ask the IT people for help without permission.

“No employee is to contact (the person) directly unless authorized by Scott (Alberts),” Rangione wrote in that memo. Alberts is the director of administrative services.

Burke, who switched from Democrat to Republican and is running for mayor, believes he can do a better job.  Keffer, who was arrested for DUI and spent time in rehab, is not running again.  Democrat Edward Brown, the current school board president, will face off against Burke this fall.

“There’s nothing confidential about (the audit),” Micozzie added. “A lot of people are pushing for it. They want to see the audit.”

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Call Me Mayor, Maybe? Upper Darby Officials Battle Over Interim Mayor

The situation in Upper Darby is getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland might say.

Even though Mayor Barbarann Keffer is in a rehab facility after being arrested for allegedly driving under the influence, township solicitor Sean Kilkenny has issued an opinion that she is not, in fact, absent.

“In accordance with Section 803 (F) of the Home Rule Charter, Sean Kilkenny, in his capacity as the Township Legal Officer, has determined that the mayor is not absent as is defined by the Home Rule Charter. Therefore, an acting mayor is not needed,” Upper Darby Communications Associate Haely Quillen-Knox said in response to Delaware Valley Journal’s queries.

A few hours later on Monday, Council President Brian Burke sent a press release declaring himself interim mayor during Keffer’s absence.

“I encourage Mayor Keffer to prioritize her health and I truly wish her the best as her recovery process moves forward,” said Burke. “I want to be clear that I am stepping in to fulfill her duties on a temporary, interim basis until such time as Mayor Keffer returns from her absence and is able to perform all of the duties as outlined by the township charter.”

Burke claims that despite Kilkenny’s assertion, there is currently no executive in place overseeing the operations of the township who was either elected by residents or was confirmed by Council per the township’s Home Rule Charter. Section 405A of the charter provides for the council president to serve as interim mayor in the event of the mayor’s absence.

“There are specific duties, per the township charter, that must be carried out either by the mayor or the chief administrative officer – who must have been nominated by the mayor and confirmed by township council,” said Burke. “In the absence of both the mayor and with no confirmed CAO in place, I feel that it is my duty and obligation to follow the continuity of government provisions as outlined by the charter and step in and fill the position of mayor on an interim basis.

“Now is not a time for partisanship or personal agendas,” said Burke. “My priority is simply to ensure that the township government continues to operate as normal in the mayor’s absence.”

When DVJournal asked Kilkenny’s office why Burke was not interim mayor, the township sent this contradictory response: “In light of recent claims made by Council President Brian Burke, Upper Darby Township would like to clarify that Mayor Barbarann Keffer has not stepped down from office and remains the mayor of Upper Darby per thorough review of the Home Rule Charter by Upper Darby Township Legal Officer, Sean P. Kilkenny, Esq. Solicitor Kilkenny has clearly communicated to Council that ‘in accordance with Section 803 (F) of the Charter and in my capacity as the Township Legal Officer I have determined that the Mayor is not absent as is defined by the Home Rule Charter.’

Mayor Keffer is in contact with the Acting Co-Chief Administrative Officer to provide policy guidance and continues to carry out her duties as the Mayor of Upper Darby Township,” according to the statement.

So what’s really going on?

“Somebody’s got to mind the store,” says former Councilman Tom Wagner, who believes Burke is doing the right thing. And he dismissed Kilkenny’s objections as insider politics.

“The solicitor often takes the mayor’s side. He seems to think he is her lawyer, not the township’s,” Wagner said.

Keffer, who was also involved in a traffic accident during the Jan. 26 DUI incident, appointed Alison Dobbins and Rita LaRue as acting co-chief administrative officers in the wake of former township administrator Vince Rongione’s resignation in January amid controversy.

According to court documents, Keffer did not cooperate with police during her arrest and refused a breathalyzer test, mug shot, and fingerprints. She was arrested in Upper Chichester after leaving a Democratic fundraiser.

Residents were concerned about the township leadership, and some suggested that Council President Burke step in as acting mayor. Residents were also concerned that the acting administrators, whose positions are not listed in the Home Rule Charter, would not be able to sign township checks.

However, Quillen-Knox said that they do.

In what might be described as a surreal council meeting last Wednesday, many Upper Darby residents spoke about Keffer’s arrest and her entry into rehab after she posted an apology on the township’s website.

Although residents, some with sympathy for Keffer and others demanding that she resign, spoke out, one after the other, council members did not mention the incident that had tongues wagging throughout the township. Instead, after listening to hours of residents’ comments, the council went on with its business meeting as if nothing unusual had happened.

Resident Kyle McIntyre said he is proud of Keffer for entering rehab to deal with her addiction.

“We should all lend her the empathy and compassion all of us would deserve if we were struggling with addiction ourselves,” he said.

To the council, he said, “In no way is this an excuse for your own political advancement. The proverbial body was not cold before some of you began plotting. Let it play out and cease your palace intrigue.”

But Joanne Nammavong called the mayor out for refusing to take a breathalyzer test or to be photographed and fingerprinted.

“In Pennsylvania, it is illegal to refuse to take a breathalyzer when asked by a law enforcement officer,” Nammavong said, said that triggers a 12-month license suspension. “Will Upper Darby taxpayers pay for a car and driver?”

She added, “The mayor needs to resign immediately. She has no regard for human life.”


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