Upper Darby government feuds as $35 million in ARPA funds remain unspent months later

Upper Darby Township Council votes 6-5 to adjourn the meeting early. Several council members are heckled as they exit the chambers. (Zoom screenshot)

Upper Darby Township Council votes 6-5 to adjourn the meeting early. Several council members are heckled as they exit the chambers. (Zoom screenshot)

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Disgusted residents took turns blasting Upper Darby Township’s elected officials for municipal gridlock at seemingly federal proportions — and their behavior — at Wednesday night’s council meeting.

Cheers from dissatisfied residents as they watched their neighbors criticize council members were met with the slamming of a gavel calling for order in the township building.

Melissa Harris, of Drexel Hill, was one of the first to step to the podium.

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“I’m curious as to why some of you are council members, because you’re not working for the township or the residents, you all have your own agendas here. And it seems like when we watch these meetings, you’re not doing anything for us residents — at all,” Harris said.

Stacey Hawley, of Drexel Hill, also had some words for the divided council.

“It’s ridiculous. You are wasting our money. Pass the ARPA funds. Put your grievances aside. There’s too much at stake here,” Hawley said.

Despite the admonishment, the 11 council members and the administration engaged in yet another skirmish after Councilmember Lisa Faraglia put forth a motion to prematurely adjourn the council meeting because a township official at the center of the controversy was participating via Zoom. Faraglia had the support of Council President Brian Burke, however, the room was heated. This wouldn’t be the first time a meeting had been cut short.

Councilmember Andrew Hayman said that he had a feeling that this was planned before the meeting and that he would “hang back” after the meeting adjourned along with four other council members and the mayoral administration to deliver a presentation to the public.

“You are out of order,” Burke said.

Hayman responded immediately.

“Do something about it.”

After a spirited 6-5 vote in favor of ending the council meeting, the departing council members were met with boos. Some members of council were called a “disgrace” as they exited out of the side door of the chambers.

What’s the state of Upper Darby Township government?

Taxes are still being paid in Upper Darby Township. Garbage trucks are still doing their scheduled pick-ups. The parks are still open for fun and recreation.

However, the sight at township council meetings paints a much different picture — local government tearing itself apart at the seams. Interviews with elected officials in the days leading up to the meeting revealed a township divided.

“What’s the state of Upper Darby? It’s a mess — how’s that,” Faraglia said.

Since February, Philadelphia’s largest suburb has barely spent any of the $20.8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds that the township received in the first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allotments.

Council has only allocated $6 million under the “lost revenue” category in order to make payroll and avoid a government shutdown. The township has since received a second round of $20.8 million in ARPA funds, meaning about $35 million in total has yet to be spent.

An internal disagreement among township leaders over whether $6 million was missing from the relief fund has yet to reach an agreed-upon conclusion. Months of infighting among two factions of the township’s council and the administration have quickly devolved into a litigious and seemingly unsalvageable dispute.

A bipartisan faction of six council members including Democrats Council President Brian Burke, Vice President Laura Wentz, and Matt Silva as well as Republicans Meaghan Wagner, Brian Andruszko, and Lisa Faraglia are seeking the removal of the township’s chief administrative officer, Vincent Rongione, from his post.

“Council did deem CAO Rongione forfeit of his position, as per the Home Rule Charter article V, because there were a lot of things, not just the mishandling of ARPA funds, but other things like his job is to uphold the budget and make sure that the administration works within the budget that’s approved by council every year. He had not done that,” Councilmember Wentz said.

Upper Darby Township Council Vice President Laura Wentz. (Wentz)

Despite a 6-5 vote in June in favor of his ousting, Rongione has remained at work with the support of Mayor Barbarann Keffer and the other five council members including Democrats Hafiz Tunis Jr., Andrew Hayman, Michelle Billups, Danyelle Blackwell, and Sheikh Siddique.

“As far as the status of CAO Rongione, I think it’s pretty clearly spelled out in the Home Rule Charter that council does not have the unilateral power — the responsibility — of either hiring or firing department heads,” Keffer said.

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According to Wentz, the language within the Home Rule Charter has led to two different conclusions.

Depending on whether or not one believes there is an “or” or an “and” within the charter, there are either three ways or three conditions that have to be met: the mayor can remove the CAO, township council can deem them forfeit of their position, and/or they’re convicted of a crime.

Rongione has continued to work in his role with the support of the mayor. The six council members who deemed him forfeit of his position essentially believe he is trespassing on township property.

“I reached out to the [district attorney], and asked for advice on how to deal with it. And then, when I reached out to [Police] Superintendent [Timothy] Bernhardt, he indicated that he did not feel comfortable enforcing the removal of Vince without a court order. And I understand that because, quite frankly, the CAO is the highest employee of the township,” Wentz said.

Council’s majority then sought a declaratory judgment from the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas to decide whether council has the authority to push him out of office.

Chief Administrative Officer Vincent Rongione. (Rongione)

On July 1, Rongione responded with a lawsuit against the council members seeking emergency relief and punitive damages. His suit accuses the council members of violating Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, breaching the Home Rule Charter, and committing civil conspiracy against Rongione.

“Council failed to provide the requisite public notice of its intention to vote on the removal of the CAO from his office,” the legal complaint said.

Citing the ongoing litigation, Rongione limited his comment on the issues by saying that Upper Darby is strong and that the lawsuits “speak for themselves.”

“Myself and the staff, we just continue to work every day and do the business of the people. This is an unfortunate distraction and I think everybody is looking forward to as quick a resolution as possible through the legal system, so that we can continue to focus even more on the important business of running the government and implementing the mayor’s agenda,” Rongione said.

Rongione isn’t alone in his legal opposition to his forfeiture. Councilmember Hayman said that the decision to remove Rongione from his position was not on the agenda.

“I don’t believe that the legislative branch of government is able to discipline or terminate employees of the executive branch. But even if I did, it would have to be on the agenda,” Hayman said.

Hayman also believes that council needed to vote in a public meeting before seeking a declaratory judgment in the county Court of Common Pleas.

He is now seeking a declaratory judgment of his own. All sides are waiting for a judge to issue a ruling.

Allegations of missing ARPA funds; report finds no foul play

​​During a Feb. 2 council meeting, township Treasurer David Haman raised questions about why an Upper Darby bank account that was supposed to have all $20.8 million of the first round of  ARPA funds was short by $6.3 million.

Upper Darby’s administration was utilizing about 45 bank accounts — 11 of which made up the general fund budget.

Haman said at the time that there was a lack of supporting information on how each account got to where it was supposed to be. By the end of November, Haman said there was $26 million in that account but the balance dipped to $14 million in December.

Because the money was commingled, it was hard to determine what exactly happened.

“If you listen to that recording of the meeting, I just said, ‘I’m not accusing anybody of anything. I just would like to know why that account is below $20.8 million.’ And all hell broke loose at that point,” Haman told WHYY News at the time.

Township leaders were in a frenzy during a special emergency meeting called days later by Keffer as the two factions of the municipal government argued over using some American Rescue Plan Act funding to avoid a government shutdown and pay township employees.

Council’s majority argued that there was a need for accountability and transparency, while Rongione, Keffer, and the other council members pointed to a letter from the Pennsylvania Local Government Investment Trust showing that the township had an account with $20.8 million that matched the entirety of the American Rescue Plan Act funds received

Eventually, council voted 10-1 to approve an ordinance allocating $6 million in ARPA money to fund the local government, which was critically low on operating funds.

Keffer promised an independent investigation into what exactly happened.

In May, the firm Marcum LLP concluded that no ARPA money had been missing.

“At all times prior to February 4, 2022, amounts received pursuant to the ARPA application were commingled with other UDT general account funds. At all times the general fund bank account balances exceeded $20.88 million,” the executive summary said.

The investigation also established that Haman’s initial inquiry into the ARPA funding was unfounded.

“Our inspection of available documents and meeting transcripts shows that only $6 million for revenue replacement has been approved as of May 10, 2022, and the remaining ARPA funds have not been appropriated,” the executive summary said.

Council members criticize the report and issue their own investigation

The report faced criticism from the six council members who ripped it for being produced by a firm hired by Keffer as well as for not analyzing all of the township’s bank accounts instead of just the general operating funds.

Councilmember Silva took issue with what he believes is the report’s methodology.

“Their analysis was that at no time does the general fund not have enough to cover the ARPA fund. So in essence, their argument was that the ARPA funds were never touched. But like I said, the general fund doesn’t just include money that belongs to the township, or money that is to be used by the township,” Silva said.

Wentz categorized the report as “bogus.” As a member of the finance committee, Wentz said that they requested information from the administration.

“We didn’t get everything we asked for but we got a lot. And then we did the math. And in doing the math, we found things that Marcum didn’t find. That’s very concerning,” Wentz said.

She didn’t offer specifics. In March, Upper Darby Township Council voted 6-5 to tap Mark Much Law Firm as a special solicitor to investigate the administration’s handling of the ARPA funds. Two months later, council voted 6-5 to appoint a Radnor-based Chartered Financial Analyst to also look into the ARPA issue.

When asked if there was anything from the investigations that she could share, Wentz said that there wasn’t anything yet.

Silva said that he understands that there is about $35 million that could be used to address a lot of needs in the township, pointing to flooding and gun violence.

However, he said that he wants to make sure that money is going to the right places.

“I’m a mechanic by trade, I’m not a financier or something. But, you know, if I’m working on an engine, and it’s just leaking oil, I don’t want to just put oil in it. If I have an opportunity to stop it and fix the leak, that’s kind of what you want to do. Because otherwise, it’s kind of a waste and there may not be another opportunity to correct this,” Silva said.

Councilmember Andruszko had questions about the 2021 budget that stemmed from the Marcum investigation. Those questions led him to ponder whether Rongione was fit to have his job.

“Nobody, in my opinion, doesn’t want to spend this money. Everybody knows the great it can do for the community, and plans to allocate it and get it spent. The biggest thing on my behalf and I think along with the other five members of that bipartisan group of six is there’s financial uncertainty in the township,” Andruszko said.

Citing his day job as a financial analyst, he believes that the 2021 budget was “out of whack” when looking at revenues and expenses. And until the second investigation is complete, he does not feel comfortable releasing the funds.

Keffer believes that it is clear that a “slim majority” of council is obstructing her administration. She said that ARPA funds belong to the community and the continued withholding of the money has hurt the township’s residents.

The mayor’s response to criticism of the Marcum audit is that the scope of the investigation mirrored the engagement letter. She said that because the ARPA funds were the basis of the accusations, that was the focus of the audit.

“I think it’s a conspiracy on behalf of the, again, slim majority of council. Most of these votes are 6-5 and it’s just about obstruction, scoring political points, and some people looking ahead to the municipal elections next year,” Keffer said.

Hayman: ‘We’re in the midst of a hostage crisis’

From the perspective of the five council members in the minority, their hands are tied.

“I’d say right now, we’re in the midst of a hostage crisis, about six months in,” Hayman said.

He said that the Keffer administration’s plan for the ARPA spending that it released in January is the “most comprehensive plan” for the funds in the county. Hayman admired the detail that went into the plan.

Hayman emphasized that the Marcum report found that the administration did not spend any of the funds.

“As of yet, I am not aware of any evidence of impropriety that is brought forward. But also, the five members of council in the minority, myself included, have not been privy to most information provided in that investigation, despite the fact that it is purportedly a council investigation,” Hayman said.

Pointing to the wave of gun violence facing the country — and Upper Darby –  Hayman highlighted that the administration’s plan is to put $1 million of the ARPA funds towards gun violence prevention.

The plan also includes millions of dollars for a community center to provide programs to kids. From new fire trucks and police vehicles, Hayman said that “everything is on the line.”

“Every day that we wait to spend this money, inflation takes a chunk out of it. The cost of materials increases — everything, from tools, to supplies, to payroll. And every day we wait, that money becomes less valuable. That means less work that we can get done,” Hayman said.

Keffer hosted a town hall on Tuesday to discuss the ARPA funding, and gave residents a chance to hear from the administration and community stakeholders on the specific initiatives and plans as well as provided a space to ask questions. The town hall was well-received by several residents who came to the podium during Wednesday’s council meeting.

Hayman believes that the refusal to accept the findings of the Marcum report is one part political and one part personal.

“Council voted to find that Vince Rongione, our CAO had forfeited his job on June 1. But on February 10, Laura Wentz, vice president of council offered his job to a Democratic Party candidate for office and activism. So that’s almost four months of lag time. So clearly this was the plan back in early February,” Hayman said.

When asked if she had looked into finding a replacement for Rongione in February, Wentz said that it was true. She said that she didn’t run again to be council president, because she had a “very bad experience” working with Rongione and Keffer.

“I actually was not aware that there was a way that I could complain about it. I’m an elected official and we’re supposed to take a lot of crap and I didn’t expect to take it from people who were supposed to be on my own team,” Wentz said.

She said that her inquiry into a new CAO was limited to a “safe space conversation” with a friend.

“I personally was looking for, if the need arised at some point in time and so that was the reason for me asking her. I did not realize that she would break the safe space conversation,” Wentz said.

Councilmember Billups echoed the sentiment of Hayman. She feels as though there are some “personal” and “misguided” motivations behind the continued withholding of the ARPA funds.

“They say ‘oh, believe me, we care for the community.’ Yeah, I don’t think so. Because you could still allocate the money so things can get done, while this investigation is still going on, and then figure it out on the back end. That’s not what they did,” Billups said.

She said that she didn’t have an answer as to why her colleagues did not take that approach.

More than just ARPA funds are at issue

While Councilmember Tunis Jr. believes that Upper Darby is in a “state of contending” to be a better community, he thinks that the actions of council have had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

“We have a township council led by a township council president and his slim majority of six white council members that have a concentrated effort into marginalizing communities of color and their representation,” Tunis Jr. said. “They’re willing to hurt 90,000 people to get back at one man — Vince Rongione.”

According to Tunis Jr., who is Black, council members of color do not get any updates to the investigation unless they go out of their way to obtain it. He also said that there is a lack of diversity in council leadership in important committees like zoning and finance. He called the behavior of Burke and some of the other council members “juvenile.”

“They have had the majority for several months and they have not passed any quality of life issues,” Tunis Jr. said.

The area that he grew up in is the neighborhood that would benefit from the new community center. There are no parks or recreational activities for kids nearby.

“As a young Black man, I grew up in Upper Darby and I thought it was going to be the most diverse place ever. And now we have people in control of council that wouldn’t even come to 69th street outside of a township council meeting,” Tunis Jr. said.

Burke did not respond to multiple requests for comment from WHYY News.

Wentz said that when she was council president, the administration refused to work with Faraglia when she served as chair of a committee. She acknowledged that there is a lack of racial diversity in council leadership but also said that there is a diversity of political affiliation and gender.

“As far as the zoning and finance committee. It’s still diverse. They’re still diverse to me. They’re just not racially diverse, but I’m not the president, it’s not my decision. We have talked about ways of diversifying it,” Wentz said.

‘This is not anything I expected to happen’: Council members are shocked

Several council members on both sides of the issue expressed disbelief that this situation has lasted for this long.

Reflecting back on their longtime relationships with their colleagues that have since soured, some of the council members were upset with how this has transpired. Silva has known Keffer and Rongione for a long time.

“This is not anything I expected to happen like three, four years ago. If you would have told me this would have happened three, four years ago, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, but I don’t know what’s going on,” Silva said.

Andruszko said that he had no ill-will going into this process and he didn’t expect it to take this long. He added that he hopes that the behavior of all of the council members improves.

“The actions people stand for, I’m fine with. People believe we were elected to serve our residents. If everybody’s acting in the manner they think is best to serve them, I’m fine with that. I just hope that the relationships and behaviors could improve,” Andruszko said.

Hawley, the resident from Drexel Hill who spoke on Wednesday night, said that council’s tone of “hostility and arrogance” needs to stop.

“You’re all Democrats — most of you. [You’re supposed] to work together. I don’t get it,” Hawley said.

The next council meeting is scheduled for Aug. 3.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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