Colwyn, Pennsylvania: The Town That Can't Seem to Govern Itself

Colwyn, Pa., is a perfect example of what happens when virtually every aspect of local government breaks down.

A group of Colwyn officials, from left to right, that called for increased transparency and a more professional borough staff: Councilmember Paul Meuser, former City Manager Paula Brown, Mayor Michael Blue, former Councilmember Jesse Brundage and Councilmember Massa Kamara
Not many people have heard of Colwyn, Pa. It’s a tiny Philadelphia suburb of about 2,500 people that covers just 0.3 square miles. But this spring, it gained notoriety when it was declared “financially distressed” by the state. Local Philadelphia stations had already been airing chaotic council meetings, complete with screaming matches, swearing, and even occasionally pushing and shoving. But the declaration brought even more attention. One TV station created a recurring segment called “Chaos in Colwyn” to cover the many resignations, firings and scandals that are ongoing. All this news coverage, along with state audits, have revealed just how poorly managed, and possibly corrupt, Colwyn is.

Colwyn, pronounced “call-win,” entered in May the state's Act 47 program, a near last-resort option for towns declared financially distressed. Under the program, city leaders work with a state-appointed coordinator to develop a recovery plan. Colwyn is the 29th Pennsylvania municipality to be declared financially distressed since 1987. Only nine of those municipalities have emerged from the program.

Many question whether Colwyn can become the tenth. When the Act 47 team initially tried to draft a financial rescue plan for the borough, they had to start from scratch. The town had no ledger and no budget to speak of. The team had to piece together how Colwyn had been spending its money by using bank statements, cancelled checks and tax records. “The Borough of Colwyn has not been a functioning representative democracy for years,” the team warned
in October. “The citizens lack the basic information required for them to cast meaningful votes. And the elected officials lack accountability to the citizens.”

Indeed, Colwyn's elected officials have been more consumed with infighting than running the government. The fire department, police department and building code enforcement divisions have all been enmeshed in scandal. The widespread chicanery is apparently keeping the district attorney very busy. A grand jury is digging into Colwyn’s finances, and prosecutors twice raided the local fire company. On Monday, the district attorney issued arrest warrants for three fire company employees on charges of theft. 

Colwyn is a perfect example of what happens when virtually every aspect of local government breaks down. The state intervention, scrutiny and criminal prosecutions have created some hope that Colwyn can be pulled out of its quagmire. But given the borough’s seamy past and the deep-seated divisions that remain among its council members, no one is taking that for granted.

Colwyn lies just outside Philadelphia, about 10 minutes from the city’s airport. It is almost entirely residential, with block after block of run-down brick houses. Economically, it’s stagnating. The median income is $33,000, and no new buildings have been built there since 2007.

But while the economy has played a role in the borough’s troubles, local observers say the drama has been exacerbated by Colwyn’s elected and appointed leadership. Anthony Williams, a Democrat who represents the area in the Pennsylvania Senate, says he once backed candidates running for the borough’s council but stopped any involvement in local politics there several years ago. “All I saw was a bunch of people screaming and hollering at each other at council meetings and making decisions that were pretty narrow in the focus and were hurting the town,” he says. “I don’t care if they’re Democrat or Republican. I don’t care if they’re my friend or not my friend. A long time ago, when they were making decisions about how to spend money, they made the wrong decisions.”

Many of those choices came to light in 2014, when a new majority took over the borough council and installed a full-time manager. The manager, Paula Brown, had served eight years as the mayor of Darby, a larger neighboring town, before coming to Colwyn. Brown knew right away that she had her work cut out for her. “When I walked into the office,” Brown says, “it was strewn with trash and papers and files. Nothing was filed. Nothing was organized. It was two feet thick on the floor of just files and records, mixed in with cigarette butts that were stamped out on the rug and rat poop. It was disgusting.”

What she eventually found in the files disgusted her too. The borough had issued debit cards to council members and city employees for expenses. Bank statements showed they had been used for hair salons, cellphone bills and restaurants. One employee, Brown says, bought gas on the borough card and then sold the gas to other customers at a discount. Brown found dozens of empty envelopes marked with dollar amounts, dates and written notes. She alleges that the envelopes held cash from residents paying their parking tickets and fines. But the money was never deposited in the bank. Instead, it was kept in a safe accessible only to certain council members.

Brown immediately started collecting information to turn over to the district attorney’s office. She also started posting information on the borough’s website and alerting the local media to her findings.

Meanwhile, the borough continued to fall behind in paying its bills despite having the second-highest property taxes in its county. By this year, it had $634,000 in outstanding bills for a government with an annual budget of $1.4 million. The vast majority of its debt was to the local sewer authority and to its pension funds.

As a result, the council took several steps to right its fiscal ship earlier this year, not least of which was to seek relief from the state government under Pennsylvania’s Act 47. Despite all these positive strides, however, Colwyn remains embroiled in turmoil.

This spring the balance of power on the council shifted again, when then-Council President Fred Lesher, who held the crucial swing vote on the seven-member body, switched his allegiances from the group that took over in 2014 to the group that controlled the council previously. One of the first things the new majority did was fire Brown and replace her with part-time employees.

Brown had been a controversial hire from the outset. While her supporters praised her experience in government, her critics chafed at her confrontational tactics. When she served as Darby mayor, for example, she repeatedly parked her car on train tracks because of an ongoing conflict with the railroad that owned them. Ultimately, it was her approach that led to her dismissal. “I personally couldn’t deal with her any more, and the people in the community couldn’t deal with her,” Lesher says. “She always ran to the media and caused trouble. And she wasn’t an elected official. If the council voted on something, she would decide on her own that it’s not what we wanted to do.“

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brown’s exit was dramatic. After the council voted to replace her, Brown returned to her office, locked the door and waited until all the council members left the borough hall. Then she started packing boxes of documents for the district attorney’s office. The next day, a TV camera crew caught a friendly council member handing her a McDonald’s breakfast through her office window. Brown said she simply didn’t want to leave her office until she could compile all of her records. She feared council members would destroy them after she left.

After all, Lesher’s new partners on the council include some of the same members -- Patricia Williams and Martha Van Auken -- whom Brown accused of abusing the borough’s expense accounts. But the biggest abuses were not the petty charges to borough accounts, according to Lesher, but the padding of the borough’s payroll. Lesher dismantled much of the borough’s professional staff. “It’s a four-block town,” Lesher says. “You have to run a one-horse town with one horse.”

Jesse Brundage quit his position on the council this fall, saying he could no longer handle the constant stress. He cites several altercations at polling places in both the primary and general elections, including one in which he got in a pushing match with the husband of a council opponent on election day in November. “I typed my resignation letter that very night and emailed it the next day. I’m a 66-year-old senior with heart conditions. I have risked both life and limb with these council persons and their hangers-on. This was the tipping point,” he says. “My other motive was to call on the state to pay closer notice to the culture of illegality present in the borough.”

Brundage was allied with Brown and the faction that controlled the council last year. He hoped his resignation would convince the Act 47 team to recommend that Colwyn be placed in receivership because of its financial conditions. But the team, led by Stephen Mullin, a former top budget official for St. Louis and Philadelphia, did not go that far. With all the money accounted for, the borough could dig itself out of its financial hole by 2019, says Mullin, now a president of Econsult Solutions. “This is an extremely manageable issue if borough and council want to manage it".

But Mullin made clear that his plan, which was turned in to the state in November, would only work if Colwyn agreed to empower a strong borough manager. Otherwise, his team said, the state should consider “more drastic remedies.”

Lesher, then the council president, was initially opposed to the team’s plan because of its recommendation for a full-time manager. He relented, however, because the state required the borough to come up with its own plan it if rejected the state blueprint. But Lesher hinted at the time that he would fire the manager down the road -- once Colwyn was back on track.

Those plans may ultimately be moot. Mayor Michael Blue, a Brown ally, told the council last week he vetoed the ordinance because he feared the new manager would take away many of his duties. He did so without informing the council, however, an apparent violation of Pennsylvania law. The council has rejected the mayor's veto, leaving the future of the Act 47 intervention murky. Amid this back and forth, the council also replaced Lesher as chair with Patricia Williams, who led the council before 2014.

Meanwhile, Delaware County District Attorney John Whelan says his lawyers are still combing through Colwyn's finances to investigate possible crimes. There's no doubt money is missing, he said at a press conference Monday, but proving that crimes occurred is difficult because of the lack of records for the cash transactions.

Paula Brown, who is still thoroughly enmeshed in Colwyn’s politics and elections, remains hopeful that charges will come. “I can’t go away until the handcuffs are put on these individuals and justice is brought back to this town,” she said. “I live five blocks away. If Colwyn doesn’t survive, if you don’t have the right kind of services, if the houses start declining because there’s no code enforcement, if they don’t hire enough police officers, then that affects my town too. I can’t turn my back on them.”

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.