Pa. Supreme Court grants receiver ability to strip Chester city officials of administrative power, ‘whether they like it or not’

With the City of Chester facing bankruptcy, the state's top court has given the receiver more power to save it, even if it means bypassing the will of local elected officials.

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Chester City Hall at East 4th Street and Avenue of the States. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Chester City Hall at East 4th Street and Avenue of the States. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Pennsylvania’s highest court granted the state-appointed receiver more power to rescue the City of Chester’s finances — even if it means saving the bankrupt city from its elected officials.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled in favor of receiver Michael Doweary, granting him the ability to strip Chester City council members of their administrative duties.

The decision affirmed a previous ruling from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, which also gave the receiver the power to remove council members from their roles as department heads.

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“I am grateful to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for this decision and I look forward to working with Mayor Stefan Roots and Chester City Council to move Chester forward,” Doweary, who is tasked with rescuing Chester’s finances, said in a statement.

In the majority opinion, state Supreme Court Justice David Wecht wrote the state legislature predicted a situation in which local officials may be “unwilling” to accept a recovery plan.

“It decided that such situations may require ‘the exercise of the Commonwealth’s sovereign and plenary police power in emergency fiscal conditions to protect the health, safety and welfare of a municipality’s citizens.’ The City of Chester’s local officials must accept the exercise of that power, whether they like it or not,” Wecht wrote.

The relationship between then-Mayor Thaddeus, Chester City Council and Doweary fractured when the latter filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the city in November 2022. Later that month, Doweary’s office filed a petition with the Commonwealth Court requesting a major change to the city’s amended recovery plan, pointing to “damaging decisions made by city elected officials.”

Both sides ended up before Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler in January 2023 with Doweary stressing the need to strip local elected officials of their administrative powers, citing obstruction, unethical behavior, among other issues.

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An attorney representing the city argued during the three-day trial that the move would be a broad overstep of power and a violation of administrative code.

Ceisler later ruled in favor of Doweary, writing that “a culture of denial, blame-shifting, arrogance, and nepotism” in Chester made this decision “not only permissible, but necessary.”

Unhappy with the decision, city officials sought remedy with the state Supreme Court.

Since then, an election has brought new blood into city government, most notably in the mayor’s office. Newly-elected Mayor Roots was once the lone city council member to support Doweary’s recovery plan — even if that means less power in the hands of city government.

In a statement to WHYY News, Roots said that a year of financial recovery was “wasted” as a result of his colleagues’ expensive appeal. However, he said the decision could have had an even worse impact if he had not worked on a compromise with Doweary.

“My compromise gives us a measure of cooperation with the receiver’s decisions moving forward, whereas the receiver originally sought total control of most administrative functions of city government,” Roots said. “The Supreme Court decision clears the path for city government’s total cooperation with the receiver’s plans to put Chester on a solid financial path to solvency after bankruptcy and for years to come.”

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