The Philadelphia Parking Authority, long a haven of political favors and patronage jobs, has a new leader — and may soon have a new way of doing business.
The authority’s board voted unanimously on Tuesday to elect attorney Beth Grossman as its new chairperson. Minutes later, board member Al Schmidt, a Republican city commissioner, proposed a rule change that could prohibit employees from serving as party ward leaders or committee members, which would be a momentous change for an agency that has earned a reputation for employing the politically connected.
Grossman, a former prosecutor and the 2017 Republican nominee for district attorney, fills the post held by Joe Ashdale, who stepped down as chair in August after leading the agency since a Harrisburg-engineered GOP takeover of the six-member board two decades ago.
“My priorities are continuing to improve various aspects of the authority, including customer service, efficiency, and public safety,” Grossman said in an interview. “I will always be devoted to Philadelphia, and I’m happy to be in this role.”
Grossman is the program director for Scioli Turco Inc., a nonprofit that acquires vacant properties in the name of blight reduction. She previously served as an assistant district attorney for 21 years and as chief of staff to the Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections. She earned her law degree from Temple University and her undergraduate from Pennsylvania State University.
Serving as PPA chairperson is a part-time job, with a $75,000 salary.
Vice chair Al Taubenberger, a Republican former City Council member, had sought to succeed Ashdale, but could not win enough support from the board last month to even hold a vote. Schmidt said he encouraged Grossman to step into the void.
Currently, there are five Republicans and one Democrat on the board.
Before the pandemic, the Parking Authority employed about 1,000 people and brought in more than $250 million in revenue per year.
Exempt from the city’s civil service system, the agency has long been known as a haven for political patronage jobs, with many of its employees connected to politicians and ward leaders. Ashdale alone saw 10 of his relatives hired at the agency during his tenure, The Inquirer reported in 2019.
The agency in recent years has sought to combat that reputation for patronage, and Schmidt on Tuesday introduced a measure to take that effort a step further. His proposal, which could get a vote as soon as next month, would prohibit PPA employees from serving as party ward leaders or committee members.
“Real or perceived, the authority has a reputation where — every time it comes up in the newspaper or, I’m sure, every time somebody gets a ticket — the specter of political patronage is looming there in people’s minds, and I think it’s important that the authority put that behind us,” Schmidt said. “In this day and age, you would really need to justify why people should be able to hold political office [and work at the PPA]. … I’m not sure what the authority gains.”
Neither Schmidt nor the agency could say how many employees may be impacted by such a rule.
A 2020 audit by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found that the ranks of the politically connected remain prevalent at the PPA. Looking at a sample of 107 employees, the audit found 25 either held political positions or lived with someone who did. The audit did not try to count employees “who might otherwise have an influential political connection, such as close friends or family members,” meaning there are likely many others at the PPA who got their jobs thanks to political ties.
Longtime PPA executive director Vince Fenerty Jr. — who stepped down after 11 years in 2016 after The Inquirer reported on the agency’s handling of sexual harassment claims against him — leads two Republican wards.
Also Tuesday, the board approved a proposal by Schmidt to create a pilot program to increase enforcement of bike lane parking violations by hiring five officers who will patrol on bicycles, looking for illegally parked cars.
The one-year pilot will be limited to the area between Delaware Avenue and 40th Street, and between Spring Garden and Bainbridge Streets. The PPA expects the costs of the program to include about $50,000 per officer, a staff member said Tuesday.
The board will consider expanding the program after one year. Covering the entire city would require 35 officers and three supervisors, a staff member said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said the PPA paid to settle sexual harassment claims against Vince Fenerty Jr.