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The city of Chester is in economic free fall. For the past two and a half years, a state-appointed receiver has been working with city officials to save Chester from its fiscal emergency.
However, the relationship between the two parties has fractured. Chester receiver Michael Doweary filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the city in November and his office is dueling the city’s elected officials in court to strip them of their administrative powers, citing obstruction, unethical behavior, among other unscalable roadblocks.
Both sides testified before Judge Ellen Ceisler at a trial Monday and Tuesday. The city’s attorney is arguing that suspending the administrative powers of elected officials is a broad overstep that violates administrative code.
Doweary testified that things have gotten so bad between the two parties in Chester that Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland has threatened him multiple times.
“The mayor became irate” at a meeting in February 2021, Doweary said. “[Kirkland] started to call me out on my name, which wasn’t the worst part, but when he got up, walked around the room, and decided to stand over top of me and challenged me to a fight and finger, my face and all the other stuff, I finally had to kind of stand up and step back to make sure that I wasn’t actually attacked,” Doweary said.
Another city official broke up the alleged confrontation, Doweary said, but that wasn’t the last incident.
In December 2022, Doweary testified, discussions with city officials regarding a new chief financial officer grew heated.
“Those conversations quickly broke down and the mayor didn’t make his way completely around the room but he … ‘Watch your back. Your days are numbered.’ Those kinds of — pointing again and that’s been pretty regular,” Doweary said.
In his cross-examination, Kirkland, who is Black, denied having ever physically threatened Doweary, who is also Black, but admitted to calling the receiver a racial slur during the February 2021 meeting and later apologizing.
“I know sometimes things are said that are hurtful and painful, and it makes you more of a better person when you’re able to step to that individual and recognize your wrongs and say and basically say I’m sorry for the comments,” Kirkland said.
In November 2022, Doweary’s office filed a petition with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania seeking a huge change to the city’s amended recovery plan. The request cited “damaging decisions made by city elected officials.”
The receiver alleged city officials are refusing to cooperate with investigations, interfering with the receiver’s duties, and ultimately obstructing the receiver’s office from rescuing Chester’s finances.
Additionally, the receiver’s office said in its written memorandum it has seen “unauthorized payments to an incarcerated employee who should have been terminated” to a $400,000 phishing scam, which the city failed to inform the receiver’s office for three months.
During the first two days of trial, the attorneys representing the receiver revived previous points of contention between his office and city officials. They attempted to paint a picture of a city government facing issues of mismanagement, a lack of transparency, cronyism, and nepotism.
“What’s really being done here and the intention of what is having to be done here is to try and empower and implement good governance and professional management in the city. And because of what our experience has been in the city and with the elected officials, we firmly believe that we did not have another choice except to propose what we did in this plan modification,” Vijay Kapoor, chief of staff to the receiver, said in court.
In their testimony, city officials said they need help to solve the city’s problems. Chester solicitor Kenneth Schuster said he’s opposed to stripping elected officials of administrative duties.
“I think that despite personality differences and struggles and disagreements, I truly believe that the receiver is well intended and the council is well intended. And I mean, for the most part, the city has functioned. We can clearly improve it, as I’ve indicated, but I think we’ve done a darn good job, given the circumstances, given any disagreements, in terms of providing all vital services, day-to-day operations, through COVID and beyond,” Schuster said during Tuesday’s testimony.
The trial will continue Wednesday morning. It is unclear when Ceisler will rule on the matter.
While Chester City Councilmember Stefan Roots — new blood to city bureaucracy — met with Doweary to come up with a compromise to avoid this issue going before the Commonwealth Court, his establishment colleagues on council and in the mayor’s office chose to draft a counterproposal among themselves.
In an Op-Ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Roots said, “the sooner we begin to work constructively with Doweary’s team, the sooner they can get us through bankruptcy.”