Since becoming a Council person on January 3, 2022, the number one question I’m repeatedly asked is, ‘How are they treating you over there?’ Do people ask all first-time elected officials the same question? Are people asking first-time County Councilman Richard Womack how are they treating him over there in the County building? Are people asking first-time State Rep Gina Curry how they are treating her in the State House?
Being new to government work as an elected official, I thought it was only fair to let a little time go by before passing judgement and sharing observations and opinions. As we fast approach 100 Days since the swearing in on January 3, I finally feel comfortable sharing a little of what goes on in the life of a new Chester City Councilman directing Public Property and Recreation.
After the big election win in November 2021, and as I got closer to January 3rd, it became obvious there would be no pregame warm-up, also known as a transition period. On January 3rd, I was sworn in and tossed right to my first council meeting without the benefit of knowing what was on the agenda. The first big surprise was hearing for the first time that the Mayor appointed me to direct Public Property and Recreation.
(If, by chance, there are newly elected council members coming out of next year’s election, I’m going to take it upon myself to offer transition guidance and a few pointers on how city council works before they start).
After that initial Council meeting, I was led to my new office. There must have been some doubt as to whether I’d show up because the office was still full of stuff from the former Councilman. Since I’m not directing the same department he directed, nothing in the desk and file cabinets related to my new responsibility. I gave it a day or two to see if the council person who is directing that department was going to grab a few things, but that didn’t happen, so I took an afternoon and emptied the years of piled up documents and had the crew box it all up and take it away.
I sort of expected (but not really) there would be a colorful box with a bow waiting for me on top of my desk with all the basic accoutrements I need on the new job like a phone number, email address, City Charter, Administrative Code, Resolution book, phone list, WIFI password, office key, computer, badge, department budget, calendar of important events, organization chart, and so on. Sadly, I’m still acquiring some of those things as we approach day 100. But I understand that Chester City government doesn’t turnover people on a regular basis so it’s forgivable that there was no provision to outfit the new guy coming through.
(If by chance, there are newly elected council members coming out of next year’s election, I’m going to take it upon myself to provide that box with a bow on their desk before they start).
In that same spirit as the box with a bow, I sort of expected someone to catch me up on what’s going on in the Public Property and Recreation department that needs my immediate attention. I figured there was something going on that was in progress and needed to get to the finish line. In fact, I imagined there were several things in the pipeline needing my attention. After a couple weeks of hearing none, I realized that I was working with a clean slate, and it was up to me to figure out what needed to be done and how to get it done.
One of the first things I learned is that traditionally my department gets involved in Dr. Martin Luther King Day activities in January and conducts the Heritage Bowl in February. I left all that work up to my Deputy Director because he’s been involved in this work for years and I had nothing to refer to and no budget to reference for deciding on how much I had to spend on these events. We ended up doing nothing for MLK Day and the Heritage Bowl was great for the students involved, but it will definitely get a facelift next year.
And then there’s the Receiver. When I entered the race to become City Councilman, the city was not in receivership. By the time I took office, the relationship between the Receiver and city officials had already begun to sour. Almost immediately, people demanded that I take a side in favor of the Receiver and what he’s trying to do, or in favor of Chester City government on how they challenge receivership. In those first few weeks, all I kept saying was ‘It’s too soon.’ Can I find the bathroom first? Can I get on the payroll, apply for benefits, get a phone number, order business cards, have a meeting or two, get this old stuff out my office? The answer for some folks was no; we need you to take a side and be public about it.
In the meantime, I got a grip on the Public Property side of my title which includes responsibility for most of the property and buildings the city owns. I visited each of our 30+ parks and playgrounds taking specific actions to remove broken and dangerous playground equipment and accessories. I inspected the Memorial Park pool and determined it will take a miracle to get it up to standard and open by Memorial Day. I crafted an Adopt-A-Park program to encourage local businesses, residents, and volunteers to pitch in and help us have beautiful parks and playgrounds teaming with activity all year long. I’m working to get baseball and softball back this summer. Tennis and Pickle Ball will have a larger profile this summer. New playground sets are arriving this year. Deshong Park is getting a facelift thanks in part to my advocacy to County Council during the campaign last year. The Summer Food Program is getting a shot in the arm. The City Hall Computer Lab will open back up to the public with new computers and free community technology training classes. I’m even trying to pull off a 50Th Anniversary Party for Ethel Waters Park on April 30.
On the legislative side of things, it’s a lot to get up to speed on how the city is run and how we do business. Learning the resolution and ordinance process is not intuitive and requires reading and rereading portions of the City Charter and Administrative Code. As I figure this stuff out, I vote in City Council meetings based on knowledge, instincts, information, trust, history, common sense, and a touch of new guy ignorance. As a result, I find myself voting against several of the things my collogues unanimously endorse. I try to explain my reasons as clearly as possible which sometimes produced some clarity not shared before a vote.
The big news going on as I type this post is the court case between the Receiver and the City. The Receiver filed on three issues. First, is the $10,000 increase in salary to the Mayor, Controller and City Councilpersons taking effect in 2022 after the Receiver ordered the increase to not be allowed. I voted no on the increase and the judge allowed the increase to stay put until the new term of elected officials take office in 2 years (and 4 years). For people who like to track winning and losing, I’d consider the judge’s ruling a tie.
Next, The Receiver ordered Council to not vote on a local business being able to apply for a liquor license. I voted no because the resolution didn’t contain enough details about the owner or the business applying for the license. I believe the process to get Council to approve a liquor license application should require a lot more scrutiny. In my opinion, the PA State Liquor Control Board expects us to screen applicants fully before passing them on to the State. The judge ruled that because Council voted to approve the application and because testimony during the hearing gave reason that the liquor license supports the Receiver’s goal of bringing new business and jobs to the city, she is in favor of letting the liquor license approval stay in place. I’d consider this ruling a win for the City.
The larger issue in the lawsuit has to do with the Receiver ordering the Director of Finance and Human Relations to be removed from his duties in those areas. The Receiver alleges the Councilman is making things difficult by not cooperating fully in the Receiver’s ability to get the city’s finances under control, among other things. The City is arguing that removing the Councilman from his duties constitutes a change in government. The judge ruled that the Chief Financial Officer will assume those duties and everyone needs to cooperate with each other. The City is asking the judge to look at her ruling again to make sure that’s what she really means while also asking for her ruling to be put on hold while she decides.
Again, I was asked to take a side in this legal matter. Clearly, my no vote on the salary increase and liquor license application speaks for itself and no new information has surfaced that changes my mind on those two matters. But the Councilman Morgan decision does provide an education for me on the limits of the Receiver’s authority and a deeper understanding of the City Charter and Administrative Code as it refers to this matter. As I commented in a City Council meeting, I’m fully in support of the City taking these matters before the court in order to get a ruling and understanding on the limits of the Receiver’s authority and how it affects a change in government as the City is arguing. Even after the ruling, I support the City asking the court to double check and make sure the transfer of these responsibilities do not change the form of government in Chester. I’m not in favor of asking the State Supreme Court to rule on a stay of the original ruling.
Thankfully, as a result of this hearing and all the evidence presented, I was able to take a focused deep dive into the City Charter and Administrative code. As I stated at a Council meeting, I don’t see where the Receiver is trying to change the form of government. In my opinion, he is trying to correct the existing form of government by putting finance operations where they belong, with the Chief Financial Officer.
To me, the argument is simplified if you look at the roles of other Chester City Councilpersons. For example, no one expects Councilwoman Williams, as Director of Public Safety, to run out and lead firefighters into a burning building. And, no one expects Mayor Kirkland, as Director of the police department, to lead police on a drug sting operation. We have a Fire Commissioner and a Police Commissioner who manages the chain of command in those departments. In my case, I have a Deputy Director for Public Property and Recreation who has possession of the keyring with all the keys to city building and park property. I don’t want to be carrying around that key ring. That’s not what a Director does.
City Council and Mayor are like a Board of Directors in a company. We set policy and direction. We’ve got highly trained professionals running the day-to-day operation with titles like Chief and Commissioner and Deputy. Most of them get paid much more than Councilpersons for good reason. They run their departments.
The Receiver is arguing that Councilman Morgan, as Director of Finance and Human Resources, does more than his job description describe. I agree with the Receiver and the judge that the Chief Financial Officer should be handling the day-to-day management of municipal finances. Maybe this was the case when CFO Nafis Nichols was here. Maybe Councilman Morgan took over those duties upon Nichol’s resignation and maintained those duties when the new interim CFO was appointed. I have to claim new guy ignorance because I wasn’t in position during that time.
Despite the ruling to transfer finance responsibility to the CFO where it seems to belong, Councilman Morgan is still the Director. He’s still a City Councilman. He’s just being ordered and ruled to turn over the ‘keyring’ of finances to the Chief Financial Officer as described in the job description of the CFO, which is modeled after a long standing Chief of Staff position that’s been on the city books for a number of years. The City has asked the judge to make sure that’s the way she wants it to stay. We’re looking forward to her response.
Getting back to the top of this post where the number one question is ‘How are they treating you over there?’ I’m being treated very well. I’ve worked in hostile work environments and Chester City Hall is the furthest thing from hostile. I’m still trying to get used to the way things are done and the pace that things get done. I’m proud to report that slowly, but surely, it seems that things are getting done.
That’s the good news. Stay tuned for more.