UPPER DARBY— The hiring of new administrative leaders and at least one new council member in Upper Darby Township sparked the first Republican reaction to Democratic rule.
Republican councilmen Tom Wagner and Don Bonnett were the most vocal against some of the administrative appointments Democrat Mayor Barbarann Keffer asked council to approve at Monday night’s reorganization meeting. Of 11 appointments put forth for approval, only four were approved unanimously, including three holdovers from the Republican administration, with any dissent coming from at least one of the three Republicans on the 11-person council. Republican Councilwoman Lisa Faraglia, sworn in to a second term Monday night, did not contribute to the appointment discussions.
The biggest talking point was the appointment of Vince Rongione to serve as the township’s chief administrative officer, a “deputy” mayor who oversees accounting systems, budgetary records and expenditures, maintains personnel files and records, and collects all of the taxes, according to the township’s home rule charter. The former Southeast Delegation Director for the Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus was approved on a party line 8-3 vote with Wagner being his most ardent objector.
Wagner prefaced his over three minutes of comments saying, “My concerns regarding this appointment are in no way personal, nor are they political,” which elicited some laughs from the meeting audience.
“This is a matter of concern that I have about qualifications,” he said, adding later after reading off the charter’s job description, “I need to know what the qualifications of this gentleman are to do all of those things. Has he ever done any of that for any organization at all? Has he ever done any of that for any municipality, perhaps a smaller one where he might have gotten some training to do all of that?”
He continued, “Those are important duties and we have to do due diligence. This appointment is not the mayor’s alone. The mayor appoints, but township council has to approve it and it’s the responsibility of every one of his here on this council to do our due diligence and make sure this is a qualified person.”
Wagner then pulled out a residency issue during Rongione’s 2014 run for state representative to serve the 163rd House District that resulted in him getting Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition in 2015 for for allegedly violating the Pennsylvania Election Code. The charges were dismissed upon completion of ARD.
Rongione the next day said he was not surprised by the discussion about his appointment, calling it “frustrating” but that he “didn’t take it personal.”
“I don’t begrudge it to Councilman Wagner or anyone up there,” he said. “The transition was bound to be difficult, and difficult for some folks to accept. I’ve been active in the community and public service for the better part of 15-20 years and my name, experience and reputation are more known to the council people who were objecting than they led on.”
On his experience, Rongione is an attorney who dealt with municipal and zoning matters for different law firms and municipalities. He had previously been a part of various non-profit organizations handling large budgets and contracts which included “writing of complex gift agreements and multi-million dollar grant proposals and reporting” and the management and intake of funds. At Villanova University he worked in institutional advancement as a director of major giving for the college of nursing handling multi-year gift agreements. Rongione also worked on a number of political campaigns whose budgets exceeded $30 million.
His management experience includes organizational budgeting, vendor management and expense tracking, all things, “I’ve been doing for years whether in the context of a political campaign, non-profit and higher education.”
“There’s a robust case to be made by my resume that I’m ready for the job,” said Rongione.
Council President Laura Wentz countered Wagner’s views, saying she knows Rongione and he will “do an amazing job at this task.” Wagner mockingly questioned that as her due diligence to vet Rongione.
“I gave a broad overview of my knowledge and experience with him,” said Wentz.
“You can say that again,” retorted Wagner quickly.
Rongione was originally one of the interviewers at a Dec. 14 meeting for council members to vet candidates to fill a number of administrative posts. He confirmed after the meeting that he was eventually part of the candidate pool as the search process continued.
The appointment of Sean Kilkenny and his Norristown-based law office for solicitor and legal services also did not sit well with Wagner.
Kilkenny’s firms represented a number of township residents in a 2018 civil appeal against the township’s zoning hearing board who they alleged allowed variance to environment-related zoning codes for an over $100 million project to update the Drexeline Shopping Center in Drexel Hill. A modification of the plans was agreed upon out-of-court by all interested parties by the end of 2018, but no progress has been made since then to update the decades-old, 17.5-acre site.
Thought Wagner didn’t have complaints about Kilkenny’s abilities as a lawyer (he also serves as Montgomery County sheriff), he thought bringing him in to support the township’s legal affairs would prevent the developer from coming back.
“It’s signing a death knell to ever reviving that project,” he said.
Wentz came back saying there was “a lot of political action that went in” to the Drexeline delay and was not solely because of Kilkenny.
“If our former mayor did not get us involved as a township, if they did not use it as a political toy, it would have moved forward months after the appeal,” she said. “At this point in time, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this.”
Bonnett shared Wagner’s concerns.
“We’re not talking about credibility as an attorney, or experience, we’re talking about the future relationship with a prospective developer of that property,” he said. “That property is in my district and is a grave concern to not only the people who live in my district, because I hear about this frequently, but it should be a concern to everyone for the township.”
Kilkenny was eventually confirmed by a 9-2 vote with Bonnett and Wagner in the dissent.
The two Republicans also voted against Chris Herr, CPA and Maillie, LLP as the township’s independent auditor.
The rest of the appointments voted on that night were unanimous, or nearly unanimous.
Council was united to retain John McMullan as director of finance, Ed Martin as director of the electrical department and Timothy Bernhardt as interim police superintendent.
Positions getting a 10-1 vote from council included Michael Gove as interim fire department chief, Alison Dobbins as director of special projects and Christopher McSween as director of licenses and inspections.
Sekela Coles’s resignation from council yielded a 10-0 vote to be confirmed director of parking enforcement. Without her vote on council, she could not vote in favor of Scott Alberts to his position of director of administrative services in the 9-1 vote.
All of the appointments were grouped into two different motions to be voted on as a block. Wagner and Bonnett asked Wentz for roll call votes on each individual nomination who obliged to the request.
Bonnett voted against seven of the appointees because he did not have the chance to meet with them before the vote and didn’t want to pre-judge anyone’s capability.
A party-line vote also occurred to appoint Matt Silva to fill the unexpired term of Keffer who was sworn-in as mayor. Democrats nominated and voted for Silva while Republicans nominated and voted for Patrick Spellman who just lost his reelection to the same seat in November.
Overall, Presient Wentz called Monday a successful night that had healthy discussion even when it got a little "funky" at times.
"Change is hard. There will be discussions on a variety of things. The question is can we find the path together to work toward helping all the constituents of Upper Darby? That’s my goal to try to do that.”