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Sources Claim Upper Darby’s Parking Problems Put Township at Risk, Cash-Handling Procedures Questioned

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.

For several months across 2021 and 2022, the director of parking enforcement in Upper Darby broke with longstanding procedures of depositing coins directly through Brinks Security, and instead opted to take coins collected at kiosks to be counted at a bank that the township does not currently do business with, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Sources said the director, Dr. Sekela M. Coles, had coins collected at parking kiosks given to a particular staffer in the parking department who then would take them to the Police and Fire Federal Credit Union, where the coins were presumably deposited into an account or converted into some kind of instrument like a cashier’s check.

Broad + Liberty does not currently have any evidence that any money went missing or is unaccounted for. But one upshot, according to a source, is that the new procedure greatly weakened previous accountability and chain-of-custody structures meant to provide maximum security while curbing losses.

All coin monies are normally put through a coin counter owned by the township, one source explained. That counting machine put the coins into Brinks bags which are securely closed, and then transferred to Brinks once a week.

Instead, with the alternate method, coins collected at kiosks were taken to the Police and Fire Federal Credit Union to be counted, and the specific Upper Darby employee would go back to Coles with some kind of documentation showing how much was collected or counted.

The sources said this information was passed on to the office of Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer months ago. To date, no charges of any kind have been filed. Within the Upper Darby township’s purview, no person appears to have been disciplined for any improper conduct.

Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer, who is not seeking re-election this November in the wake of a DUI scandal, did not directly address questions on the parking procedures.

“My administration constantly evaluates each and every department to seek any necessary improvements to internal controls, policies, financial reporting systems, as well as other municipal functions,” Keffer said in a response to questions. “I believe it would be irresponsible for me to comment on internal reviews or to answer speculative questions on these matters.”

Coles said she could not properly address the above allegations given the deadline imposed by Broad + Liberty for comment. This outlet emailed and called Coles shortly after 10 a.m. on Wednesday, asking for comment to be provided by 3 p.m.

She also intimated she was considering legal action.

“Be advised any article mentioning my name, allegations against me, and my business reputation are defamatory per se,” she said. “All rights and remedies available to me legally under Pennsylvania law will be pursued against you individually and your media outlet. I have forwarded a courtesy copy of your communication to my attorney.”

A request for comment to the district attorney’s office was not returned.

Problems with the township’s parking enforcement first came to light in January 2023 after CBS3 investigative reporter Joe Holden revealed thousands of parking tickets in Upper Darby had not been properly routed through local courts.

The township council authorized the audit of the parking department just one day after the Holden report, but a complete version of that audit has not yet been provided to the township government.

In early May, Broad + Liberty reported that some members of township council were having a hard time getting straight answers from Mayor Keffer’s administration, and were pressing for a full copy of the audit, which was months late by that time.

On June 1, Holden broke another report detailing elements of a preliminary audit that had been provided to township officials, but was not made available to the public. This report alleged serious mismanagement, including “a lack of communication at the township, a lack of oversight and a lack of internal controls and procedures,” according to Holden.

Whether the audit is complete is still unknown. Although some news outlets have quoted portions of the report, it has never been fully released to the public through official channels.

At a council meeting on May 24, solicitor Colleen Marsini acknowledged that part of the audit had been routed to the district attorney’s office.

“It was completed by Brinker Simpson and Donna Stillwell, part one,” Marsini began, referring to the auditors. “There was a part two, a supplement, that was submitted to the district attorney’s office. When that is returned, she [Keffer] then will be authorized to release the whole report.”

The change to the new Passport software system was not managed successfully, and there appears to have been no centralized decision-making.

In response to a Holden inquiry on June 1, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer acknowledged his office was looking into matters.

“We take all of these allegations seriously,” Stollsteimer said in the CBS report. “We are going to do investigations and if we, if charges are meant to be brought, we will bring them.”

When the audit was initially authorized by the township council, the routine of taking the kiosk coins to the Police and Fire Federal Credit union was suddenly halted, sources also said.

Thousands of persons who were ticketed in the township may not have had the opportunity to challenge the fines in front of a judge. An Upper Darby resident filed a class action lawsuit in April because of those due process issues.

Despite the numerous allegations of incompetent governance, Coles nevertheless claims her time as parking director has been an unmitigated success.

“Sekela Mungai Coles within her first year was able to transform the Upper Darby Parking Enforcement Department. Under her direction, the department’s systems have been modernized,” her bio on the township website says.

“Coles streamlined the parking payment processes, allowing residents to pay for parking through a safe, user-friendly app as opposed to only meters, as well as take online payment methods when paying parking fines and reserving municipal parking lot spaces,” the bio continues. It also mentions she oversaw the implementation of the first parking kiosks in the township in 2021.

Coles was also an elected member of the township council from 2014–20, according to her bio on the township website. She also challenged incumbent Democratic state House member Margo Davidson for her 164th district seat in 2016, but was unsuccessful.

Another report on the parking audit, this one by Delaware Valley Journal, quoted the audit at greater length.

“Before January 2021, there were no issues with unpaid parking tickets filed with the (courts),” the Delaware Valley Journal report noted in quoting the audit directly. “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 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,” the audit also said, according to DVJ.


Radnor Planners Reject New Villanova University Garage

The Radnor Township Planning Commission rejected a proposed new four-story tall parking garage on the Villanova University campus.

The new garage would replace a two-story garage, VU lawyer Nicholas Caniglia told the Planning Commissioners on Feb. 6. The current steel and concrete structure, off Ithan Avenue,  is nearing the end of its useful life and sports signs saying “Park at your own risk.”

The university will require zoning variances for the building’s 52.7-foot height and additional setbacks from the property boundaries to build the new garage. It would add 232 parking spaces, said Mary Lou Smith, VU assistant vice president for engineering and construction.

Current Villanova parking garage

Caniglia said the school requires additional parking to comply with the township code for other possible projects in its long-term plan. VU Assistant Vice President Chris Kovolski insisted that Villanova has no plans to increase its enrollment. Instead, he said more students want to live on campus, so more dorm rooms will likely be needed.  Villanova has 6,700 undergraduates and 3,100 graduate and law students.

Planning Commission Chair M.J. Frumin noted that the university had just been before the commission in November with plans for a new library, which was approved.

“With all due respect, you’re planning to add dorms,” said Frumin. “That, to me, screams more people.”

Frumin told the VU officials he thinks they will have “a challenging time” proving a hardship needed for a zoning variance.

Resident Sara Pilling was concerned about traffic in the area, particularly the narrow SEPTA underpass on Ithan Avenue, where only one car at a time can pass.

“It’s dicey at the very best of times,” said Pilling.  “I have a deep concern. If they build 232 parking spaces, what is going to happen to that pinch-point?”

Ward 7 Commissioner Sean Farhy is concerned about the height of the proposed garage and also light pollution.

“It’s going to be too close for comfort (to residential neighborhoods),” he said. He suggested adding a parking deck underground to reduce the building’s height, but Smith told him that there were too many utilities.

Roberta Winters, another resident, said, “What happens at Villanova does not stay in Villanova. It impacts the greater Township. Among Radnor’s most pervasive problems are traffic, parking, and stormwater. Replacing the existing parking garage with one that is 53 feet high and holds 405 vehicles may reduce a parking concern, but it is bound to impact traffic, congestion, and create potential environmental issues.”

Winters said, “The garage site is problematic because of its location.  Ithan Avenue is already a busy thoroughfare between Lancaster and Montgomery avenues. The intersection with County Line Road at this spot is particularly hazardous.”  She also mentioned the narrow SEPTA bridge, saying traffic studies should be done.

Winters said neighbors were told that no more parking would be needed with the approval of dorms and an entertainment center on the south side of Lancaster Avenue a few years ago.

“If the university can collaborate to find parking for the Pope’s last visit, they should be able to find spaces at off-peak hours from other existing commercial and institutional spaces in the area. In addition to creative scheduling, shuttles, and even car services are always an option,” she said.

Winters was also concerned about environmental issues, such as stormwater runoff.

“I fear Villanova is eating those who live here, the properties that we own, and the quality of life we value, one bite at a time.  This is an opportunity for you to say, enough is enough,” she said.

Residents Tish Long and Rick Leonardi wrote to the planners expressing similar concerns. Leonardi also believes that some homeowners nearby who should have been notified of the university’s plans, were not.

“What we’re hearing is a tremendous amount of opposition from the public,” said Frumin.

The Radnor Zoning Hearing Board is scheduled to take up the VU parking garage appeal at its Feb. 16 meeting.

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