Towns on the edge: In 3 Delco municipalities, demographics & harsh politics cloud the climate

Older municipalities face deteriorating infrastructure and shrinking taxes bases as higher-income residents move farther from Philadelphia. Above, Darby Borough at Ninth and Main streets.
Older municipalities face deteriorating infrastructure and shrinking taxes bases as higher-income residents move farther from Philadelphia. Above, Darby Borough at Ninth and Main streets.
Posted: February 15, 2010

IT DOESN'T TAKE a genius to see that eastern Delaware County was sliced way too thin.

Drop a quarter on a county map and it might cover two or three municipalities, most of them entirely self-sustaining, with their own police department, fire department and elected council.

Some of the boroughs are so small that they're better measured in acres than square miles. Elections can be decided by a few hundred voters. Your councilman is your neighbor.

But small-town governing isn't easy when you live in the shadow of a hulking city, when your sewer lines are collapsing and your tax base is shrinking.

And in the balkanized boroughs that hug the Southwest Philadelphia border, politicians tend to spend half their time wrestling with urban sprawl, the other half wrestling with each other.

"It's always been rough and tumble, because you're dealing with rough-and-tumble people," said Diane Leahan, a William Penn School Board member from Darby. "It's 'Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robot' politics."

Close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat is often the norm in Delaware County's inner-ring municipalities, where clashing personalities and shifting demographics continue to fuel some of the region's fiercest power struggles.

"Sometimes," Leahan confided, "I find it exhausting."

Darby

Hardscrabble Darby Borough (estimated population 9,903) has long been known for its volatile political scene, a raucous tragicomedy with intermissions but no end.

For decades, the main character was the notorious bomb thrower Paula Brown, elected to public office in the 1980s when she was a 26-year-old waitress. She's the villain or the hero, depending on your perspective.

As a councilwoman in 1989, Brown was handcuffed and arrested by the police chief when she refused to shut up during a council meeting. In 2004, there was the "Freedom Camp" saga, when Brown, then the mayor, locked herself in her office — for a second time — during what she said was a coup attempt.

The standoff generated national headlines as a group of her supporters pitched tents outside the borough hall and refused to leave, making for a bizarre scene that was part protest, part tailgate. It went on for weeks.

"It's definitely something in the water," Brown said with a chuckle, reflecting on Darby's penchant for knock-down-drag-out political brawls, and, occasionally, an actual brawl.

In the summer of 2000, a Darby council meeting ended in bloodshed when an argument over a grand jury report about the borough's finances led to a fistfight between a Republican councilman and the Democratic council president.

Yeadon

Surprisingly, Darby has been relatively calm lately. Brown was voted out of office in 2005 and lost a mayoral bid last year.

But tempers have been flaring in the neighboring boroughs of Yeadon and Colwyn, whose governments have, at times, appeared to be on the verge of collapse.

"These three towns, what is our problem?'" Brown said. "It's like a disease that is spreading. It originated in Darby and has spread to Yeadon, and now Colwyn. Who's next?"

Yeadon (estimated population 11,367) is recovering from one of its most tumultuous years, sparked by the election of a convicted felon to council and his subsequent appointment to the committee that oversees the police department.

Terry McGirth pleaded guilty in 2003 to stealing more than $100,000 from the Chester County kidney-dialysis company where he had worked. He said he found God in prison and managed to get elected in Yeadon, even though he was on probation.

"He should have never been sworn in," said Lacy Wheeler, a Yeadon attorney who frequently attends council meetings. "Then, when he was appointed to be head of the public safety committee when he had a criminal background himself, that kind of decision did not sit well with members of the community."

While on council, McGirth was charged with harassing borough Finance Director Terri Vaughn. He pleaded guilty to that charge in September. Vaughn has since been fired, and the state Attorney General's Office is investigating whether she misappropriated funds.

McGirth was kicked off council in July after Delaware County District Attorney G. Michael Green filed a court motion to have him removed. The state constitution bars a person convicted of an "infamous crime" from holding office.

Then things really got out of hand.

After McGirth was ousted, his council allies refused to show up at council meetings, deciding to wait out a 30-day window during which the mayor — a McGirth foe — could have appointed McGirth's successor and shifted the balance of power. The boycott prevented the council from forming a quorum and effectively shut down all council business, pushing infuriated Yeadon residents over the edge.

McGirth's faction was slaughtered at the polls last year.

Dolores Jones-Butler, who is beginning her first term as Yeadon's mayor, said she hopes that with five new council members, the borough will be able to put last year's turmoil behind it.

"We're trying. We're taking baby steps," she said. "We have not eliminated all of our problems, but they're not as massive as they were last year."

Colwyn

You want massive problems? Take a trip around the corner to Colwyn (estimated population 2,394), a 170-acre borough wedged in between Cobbs and Darby creeks with a toxic, racially charged political environment.

In May 2008, the 103-year-old Colwyn Fire Co. No. 1 was disbanded. Then council invited controversy the following month by hiring as a consultant a former councilwoman who pleaded guilty in 2006 to aggravated assault of a borough police officer.

Last September, Colwyn officials fired the borough manager after eight months on the job, then terminated longtime police Chief Bryan Hills following a standoff over police staffing and overtime.

"It seems if they would just put down their political philosophies and try to work together for the betterment of the community, things would be better," said Otis Hicks, a seminary grad student who lives across from Colwyn's borough hall.

Tonette Pray, the first black councilwoman in Colwyn, which is now controlled by Democrats after decades of Republican rule, said last week that "racism and bigotry" are behind some of the political clashes, which she said began to spiral out of control when she tried to hire more black police officers.

In recent months, Pray said she has been concerned for her safety. A large crowd of protesters stormed borough hall in October to support the deposed police chief, shouting "Bring Back Hillsy!" Pray said there were "skinheads" at the rally, and that one of the protesters told her, "I could hurt you anytime."

"We have no protection here, and nobody can give us any protection," she said.

The same month, Pray said, someone put a listing on Craigslist that said everything in her home was free. "People were coming to my house and knocking on my door," she said.

Former Colwyn Mayor John Fitzgerald, a Republican who retired last month, dismissed Pray's racism claim as a red herring.

"If there's racism, it's with her, not anyone else," Fitzgerald said. "You just have people that got elected and they're incompetent. They don't know how to run a borough. They fly by the seat of their pants and get themselves in budget trouble."

Hills, who is appealing his termination through arbitration, plans to file a federal civil-rights suit against Pray, claiming that he was fired because he is white. The "grossly understaffed" police department is down to one full-time officer, he said.

"It's a shame," Hills said. "People want their police department back."

Pray says she's trying to move away from the "Hatfield-McCoy mentality" that she blames on disgruntled Republicans who want to see Democrats fail in order to regain power. But she isn't one to back down from a fight, either. The phrase "turn the other cheek" isn't heard often in the Darby-Colwyn-Yeadon political arena.

"Whenever you're first through the door, you have to have very tough skin," Pray said. "I love where I live and I'm not going to let anyone scare me or drive me away."

Allegations of racism, and reverse racism, have also arisen over the years in Yeadon and Darby, which are predominately black.

When Brown was mayor, some black council members took to calling her a "plantation mistress," and Yeadon will soon be facing another lawsuit from Christi Vitullo, a former part-time employee who claims she was denied a police secretary job because she is white.

In 2006, a federal jury found that that the borough illegally used race as "a motivating factor" in hiring a black woman over Vitullo. She was awarded about $100,000 in damages and attorneys' fees. Borough officials had said they were only trying to diversify the police department to reflect the community, which is about 80 percent black.

Vitullo was subsequently fired and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2008 that Yeadon officials had fired her in retaliation for filing the discrimination suit, a claim the officials deny. She and the borough were unable to reach a monetary settlement on the EEOC case, so she's planning to sue Yeadon again in federal court.

Too small to survive?

The tough politics in Delaware County's inner-ring boroughs also stem from the huge challenges that these old municipalities are facing — crumbling streets and sewer lines, urban sprawl, a concentration of Section 8 housing, underperforming school districts and a shrinking tax base as higher-income residents move farther from the city.

Addressing the infrastructure and financial issues is particularly difficult in the inner ring Philadelphia suburbs, which are among most fragmented in the nation, according to David Rusk, an urban policy consultant and former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M.

"What we call neighborhoods in Albuquerque, you organize as whole boroughs and townships," Rusk said.

The lack of meaningful regional planning or resource sharing is a recipe for failure in these tiny boroughs, regardless of who is in office, Rusk said. With tax dollars flowing to the outer suburbs, small-town politicians don't have the ability turn their municipalities around on their own.

"You can bring the most wonderful, principled, honest, competent government possible to Darby, and what are you going to do strictly within the boundaries of Darby?" Rusk asked.

That's where the Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project comes in. Launched in 2007, the project is a regional coalition of community leaders in older, developed suburbs who are trying to pool their resources and political clout to solve their common problems.

The project has had some early success, including initiating a regional housing study and helping to obtain additional state education funding for cash-strapped school districts.

"The challenges of small government are almost overwhelming," said First Suburbs Project co-chair Jacquelynn Puriefoy-Brinkley, a former Yeadon council president. "Yeadon, working by itself, is not going to be able to affect state, county or federal policies that improve our communities, but by working together, we can."

One solution would be to merge some of Delaware County's boroughs in the way that Pennsylvania school districts were consolidated. But that is considered a pie-in-the-sky scenario that is unlikely to occur.

"To be blunt about it, I think Colwyn is too small to be its own government," said Cliff Wilson, chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party. "It's time for someone to say, 'Hey, we can't do this for another 100 years, we can't have these 49 municipalities.' None of it makes sense at all. It's not an efficient, sensible way to do things."

Brighter future? 

Darby officials say they are making some progress, now that their political battles have simmered down.

A supermarket and strip mall are planned for MacDade Boulevard, which will create jobs and much needed tax dollars. Darby is also building a new recreation center, borough hall and police department. And council was able to rescue the historic Darby Free Library — believed to be the oldest continuously operating public library in America — which was in danger of closing last year due to a funding shortfall.

Gun crime in Darby, however, continues to be a setback. In September, Mayor Helen Thomas declared a state of emergency and issued a temporary all-ages curfew in the Third Ward, forcing even adults to be inside their homes after 9 p.m. County investigators are also looking into why a Darby councilwoman's handgun was found in a car rented by a felon.

"Things are going good, and that's only because we're not letting negative people stand in our way and bring us down," said Darby Council President Janice Davis. "We are moving along. We're trying to build Darby up. Businesses are coming in, and we don't have time for nonsense."

But will the truce last? Or will the political infighting re-ignite once again, driving away investors and developers?

"Politics works with compromise. Our country was built on one big compromise," said Leahan, the school board member. "If you're coming into the situation and are not willing to compromise, then that's going to make the issues harder, more divisive, and nothing gets done."

As to why compromise is so scarce in these boroughs, nobody seems to know.

"If I could answer that, I'd become the best mayor in Delaware County and keep the position for life," said Jones-Butler, the Yeadon mayor. "I simply can't understand why they have such a hard time coming together. But it has to be worked out eventually, because we can't keep going on like this."

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