Mayor's hiring of convict disrupts Pa. community's rebirth


CHESTER, Pa. -- For a couple of months, this crumbling city of rickety rowhouses, boarded-up storefronts and abandoned factories seemed on the verge of a renaissance.

A new mayor, the first Democrat to occupy City Hall in almost a century, paid electricity bills so Chester's streetlights could be turned back on. She paid overdue insurance bills so city workers' health policies would be reinstated. And she hired a new police chief who made sure 18 cars instead of two were patrolling the streets at all times.

"When it snowed a couple of weeks ago, there were people actually out putting salt on my street," said a 66-year-old woman who has lived in Chester all her life. "That never happened before."

Then Mayor Barbara Bohannan-Sheppard decided to hire a convicted murderer and rapist as her chief administrative assistant.

Now she spends much of her time defending that action. The City Council spends much of its time demanding that she rescind the offer. Residents debate the issue in their homes and churches. And the city's direr needs go unaddressed.

This town of 4 square miles and 41,000 people has long been ranked one of the poorest cities of its size in the United States. Its government was notoriously corrupt.

Chester is surrounded by some of Philadelphia's most affluent southern suburbs, and, at one time, the town boomed with industries including a shipbuilding plant and steel mills. But in the 1960s, its industries packed up and moved south. Chester never recovered.

More than 10 percent of its residents live in drug-infested public housing complexes. By comparison, 5 percent of Baltimore's residents live in public housing.

One in three Chester families receives some form of welfare, and one adult in three is unemployed, city officials say. Chester schools have been ranked last or next to last in Pennsylvania for longer than most people can remember.

And Republicans have controlled city government for even longer.

One of the most controversial Republican leaders was John Nacrelli, who served as mayor from 1968 until 1979, when he was convicted of racketeering. Nacrelli served two years in prison, and after his release he continued to exercise influence and political power over Chester's government. A 1990 Pennsylvania Crime Commission report said Nacrelli continued to award contracts and make political appointments while his Republican cronies held office.

"That's how they kept control of the city," said the Rev. Dickie Robbins of the Word of Life Ministry. "People depend on their jobs, and if you didn't register Republican, you didn't work."

It was on a wave of public anger over corruption that Mrs. Bohannan-Sheppard rode into office. Two other Democrats -- college administrator Annette Burton, 52, and Boeing union leader Charles McLaughlin, 54 -- also won seats on the City Council, giving the party three of the five elected seats.

The Democrats waged an aggressive grass-roots campaign that registered 3,000 new voters.

On election day, Mrs. Bohannan-Sheppard handed out fliers in front of a business where welfare recipients cash their checks.

"This is it! 100 years is long enough . . . " said one of her campaign leaflets, referring to the Republican government.

The energetic Democrat won by 800 votes. And in a rowdy inaugural meeting, she tore Nacrelli's portrait off the wall of the council meeting room and dropped it on the floor, face down.

One day after her victory, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took over operation of the city's five public housing developments. It began regularly collecting trash, renovating, moving needy families into vacant units and working with police to increase patrols in the communities.

"The [Chester Housing Authority] has failed miserably in its mission," HUD regional administrator Michael A. Smerconish said at a news conference announcing the takeover.

Schools were also failing. Student performances on state reading and math tests were always the lowest in the state, while teacher absenteeism was among the highest.

But last year, as a result of a lawsuit against the schools by an angry group of parents, Chester is preparing for a reorganization that will include opening a school for students with behavior problems as well as an academy for students seeking academic challenges.

"If you can't lead your schools out of this mess, then you don't deserve your $60,000-a-year salary," Stephen J. Wesley, assistant schools superintendent, said at a meeting of principals last week. "All of us have mud splattered on us. We're all a bunch of laughed-at folks. But we need to take this ship and head out of the rocks."

For the first time in years, it seemed that the residents of Chester and their government were united in their efforts and goals. But the honeymoon was short-lived.

At the end of her first month in office, the mayor appointed Robert Hill as her administrative aide with a salary of $32,500.

The word spread quickly. Surely, residents thought, it couldn't be the same Robert Hill who was convicted at age 14 of repeatedly stabbing an insurance salesman. It couldn't be the same Robert Hill who served nine years in jail for that murder and after his release raped a 16-year-old girl in a parking lot.

But it was. And they were outraged.

"That man has sunk to the lowest level a human being can sink, and this just sends the message that it's OK to take a man's life because you can still get a great job," said the Rev. Horace Strand, who organized several protests over Hill's appointment. The mayor, who says she found out about Hill's past after offering him the job, says Hill is perfectly qualified for the job, which requires him to do nothing more than answer her telephone and type documents. The issue has divided the city and left its political leaders playing the same power games as their predecessors.

Frustrated by the mayor's refusal to fire Hill, the City Council voted last week to eliminate his salary.

After the vote, the meeting erupted into chaos. Threats were exchanged among people seated in the audience, and others were hurled at the council.

"I have been in law enforcement 27 years and I was the arresting officer in Mr. Hill's rape," said Commodore S. Harris Jr. "The Constitution of this country says that when people pay their debt to society, they are supposed to be able to live a productive life like everybody else. But we don't allow that in this country."

Not everyone in Chester is consumed with the Hill controversy. At Mr. Robbins' church, a ramshackle storefront in the shadow of the Commodore John Barry Bridge, there was no mention of Hill's appointment during a Bible study class last week.

The slim, 34-year-old pastor prefers to keep his congregation members' sights on Chester's renewal. He registers them to vote, urges them to attend government meetings and challenges them to stay in their crime-ridden neighborhoods and fight the drug dealers.

"This is the greatest opportunity Chester has had for change in the last 75 years," Mr. Robbins said. "And I want to be sure we don't miss out on it."

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