December 30, 2015

When a town government breaks down

Governing - 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.

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If Michigan is any measure of this -- when municipalities go into these state sponsored bankruptcy programs the corruption becomes more regularized and less visible to the public. For example public school officials misdirecting funds are replaced by private charter school operators who skim as much or more from the local taxpayers but are now doing so under legal contracts with no public oversight. Same is no doubt repeated in all areas of privatized public services --disaster capitalism at work