Colwyn: A tiny town of gigantic disputes

New Borough Manager Paula M. Brown and interim manager Dan Rutland try to organize borough offices.
New Borough Manager Paula M. Brown and interim manager Dan Rutland try to organize borough offices. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 05, 2014

Its rowhouses and twins are tucked neatly into less than a third of a square mile in easternmost Delaware County, Philadelphia a splash away across Cobbs Creek.

Colwyn, founded in the 17th century, was once a sleepy bedroom community. Now it's a hotbed of discord, with a fractious government, a police department emerging from chaos, and, most recently, allegations of fiscal malfeasance.

"It's just a mess," said a borough councilman, Frederick Lesher.

That's hard to dispute. In the last four years, the borough's 2,500 residents have endured outsized civic upheaval.

For example:

In January, three council members kicked three other elected members off the board, then replaced them with folks who had not been elected.

Also in January, the public safety director, whose office was the subject of a search by at least one FBI agent, was fired after drawing the ire of the Philadelphia Police Department, for whom she also worked as an officer.

For years, borough officials, police officers, and residents have been taking one another to court on retaliation, assault, harassment, and racism charges.

And then this bombshell landed last week: A Delaware County grand jury has been reviewing borough records.

The subject and scope of its investigation is unclear, but the newly hired borough manager, Paula M. Brown, speculated that it may be tied to misappropriation of taxpayer money.

Responding to a subpoena, Brown said she turned over records from the hard drive of the police department's photocopier.

In February, an accountant hired to audit the borough's 2011 financial report raised questions about a $14,999 loan, bank- and highway-fund transfers, debit-card charges, and payroll transactions.

And, to add injury to insult for the long-suffering residents, Colwyn, according to tax records, has the highest property tax rates in the county - well more than double that of wealthy Radnor Township - and one of the highest in the nation.

"Colwyn is a four-block town," said Lesher, one of the councilmen who was booted out of office, then reinstated, "that has big-city, nasty politics."

'Rogue action'

The raucous Jan. 22 council meeting typified the borough's divisions.

Councilwomen Patricia Williams, Martha Van Auken, and Tonette Pray, all Democrats, declared that Council President Paul Meuser, a Republican, and fellow Democrats Jesse Brundage and Lesher, elected in November, were unqualified to serve because they failed to present the proper residency paperwork.

And, the women said, they weren't "comfortable" with the way the men had taken the oath of office on Jan. 6.

So, Williams said, she had "the right" to replace all three with people of her choice. Later, a Delaware County Court judge ordered the men reinstated, saying Williams had engaged in a "rogue action."

On Thursday, Williams said she was happy that things are continuing to change in Colwyn. "I don't know if it's in the right direction or wrong direction," she said, "but it's moving."

Van Auken declined to comment on borough activities, and Pray could not be reached.

Hired, then fired

Colwyn hired Rochelle Bilal as public safety director in September 2012, but she still was working as a Philadelphia police officer, in violation of Philadelphia Police Department rules. Bilal quit her city job in April 2013, but by then she was the subject of an Internal Affairs Bureau probe.

The month after she quit, Philadelphia and Delaware County detectives, joined by at least one FBI computer specialist, raided the Colwyn borough hall. The warrant stated that Philadelphia police were investigating her for alleged theft. Twice, the warrant said, the Philadelphia cops had denied Bilal's request for outside employment.

Two months later, Trevor Parham, then a borough police officer, arrested Bilal and her assistant, Wanda Davis, then a police clerk, on unrelated theft charges.

Subsequently, Jack Whelan, the Delaware County district attorney, said he had never approved the arrest by Parham and dismissed the charges.

However, Meuser, the new Colwyn council president, fired both Bilal and Davis in January and eliminated their "political patronage" jobs, he said, to save money.

According to Brown, the Colwyn manager, Philadelphia's Internal Affairs Bureau is still investigating Bilal. Attempts to reach Bilal for comment last week were unsuccessful.

Police problems

Parham was involved in an incident two years ago that gained national publicity when he used a Taser on a handcuffed and jailed teenager. After fellow officers reported it, he was arrested on assault charges.

Four Colwyn police officers then filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit, which is still active, alleging that borough officials retaliated against them for reporting Parham.

Council voted to fire Parham, but a Delaware County Court judge found him not guilty in October 2012, and he was reinstated shortly thereafter.

But, after Parham arrested Bilal and Davis on theft charges, he was fired again.

Parham could not be reached for comment last week.

Meanwhile, the department has a new chief, who used to be the old chief.

Bryan Hills returned to active duty just in January after having been effectively suspended for five years - with pay. Named chief in 2001, Hills was fired by the council in 2009 on allegations that he ignored the council's directives.

But in May 2011, an arbitrator ordered Hills reinstated. Although courts upheld the arbitration award, Hills remained on paid leave until newly elected Mayor Michael Blue made his return official in January.

"I was basically paid to not go to work, which didn't make any sense," Hills said. "They spent a whole lot of money to keep me out of Colwyn."

In February 2013, Hills filed a federal lawsuit against the borough alleging that Pray, who became the borough's first black council president in 2008, had targeted him because he is white. The suit is pending.

"The borough was mismanaged so long," Hills said, "it affects police protection."

"The borough," said Blue, "has got to be cleaned up."

Brian G. Lock, a Republican and longtime resident of Colwyn, ran for mayor last year but lost to Blue in November. He predicts the sun will shine again on the long-suffering people of Colwyn.

"Better days are ahead," Lock said.

"But not right now."


sabdur-rahman@phillynews.com

@sabdurr

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