The Philadelphia Parking Authority board abruptly ousted executive director Scott Petri on Thursday, sending shock waves through the state-controlled agency amid signs of recent financial turbulence.
PPA spokesperson Martin O’Rourke confirmed that Friday will be Petri’s last day, but he declined to comment on the reasons behind the firing, calling it “a personnel issue.”
Petri could not immediately be reached for comment. O’Rourke said PPA general counsel Dennis Weldon will “assume the responsibilities” of executive director. The board announced plans to launch a national search for a permanent replacement.
The firing comes a little more than four years after the parking authority appointed Petri, 61, to steer the agency out of a series of high-profile scandals. But Petri’s tenure has also faced scrutiny. One board member and another parking authority source familiar with the situation said PPA leadership had soured over the authority potentially losing control of the airport parking operation, as well as a controversial request by the PPA that the city’s school district pay back $11.3 million it said it distributed in error.
Petri, a Republican attorney from Bucks County, had served for 15 years as a state representative in Pennsylvania’s 178th District before the board tapped him in 2017 to replace former PPA director Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., who resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. At the time of Petri’s appointment, a state audit also slammed the PPA for financial malfeasance and an “absentee” board that turned a blind eye on leadership.
A 2020 audit by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart criticized the authority over bloated executive salaries, suspect hiring practices, and other problems.
Petri, who was hired at $210,000 a year, oversaw soaring parking revenues until the operation ground to a halt in 2020 due to the pandemic. But as the city’s economy began to bounce back, the PPA found its own accounting back in the spotlight.
One of the PPA’s primary financial obligations is to share its on-street parking revenue with the city and the school district. In December, The Inquirer reported on the PPA’s unusual request for the school district to refund $11.3 million that the authority called an overpayment from years prior.
Petri blamed an accounting error, but critics called it a take back that amounted to stealing money from schoolkids. City Council has since called for a probe into the agency’s finances.
More scrutiny followed in January, when the Philadelphia International Airport announced it was wresting control of its parking operation from the PPA, which had run the lucrative airport garages for nearly half a century. The loss of the contract could gut a $63 million annual operation within the PPA that employs as many as 150 people.
Still, Petri’s firing was unexpected, even among some senior officials. One PPA staffer said: “The place is in shock.”
In a letter sent to staff Thursday morning, PPA board chairwoman Beth Grossman did not give a reason for Petri’s sudden removal but did mention the airport.
“A major goal of the PPA as we move forward will be to create meaningful community partnerships as well as stopping the privatization of essential family-sustaining jobs at Philadelphia International Airport,” Grossman said.
She added that the board would conduct a national search for a new director. Board members were “committed to a smooth transition,” she wrote in the letter obtained by The Inquirer, and asked employees for their “continued cooperation and patience.”
Reached by phone, Grossman declined to comment. One board member, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, said dissatisfaction with Petri has been growing for about six months. “In business, that’s like forever in some ways,” the board member said.
Critics of the parking authority heralded the board’s decision.
Councilmember Helen Gym, who called for a probe into the PPA’s finances last month, has criticized the authority for not forwarding more money to the school district and said in a statement that Petri’s ouster “validates the seriousness of our concerns and the need for structural reform of the Parking Authority.”
Pay Up PPA, a progressive coalition that has advocated for more transparency and school support from the authority, said the PPA showed “immense disdain” toward the group’s demands over the years.
Eric Rosso, the group’s spokesperson, was also critical of the authority’s hiring practices, tapping Petri’s former business associate as the PPA’s part-time CFO, and hiring former Philly police officer Ryan Pownall after he had been fired over fatally shooting a man in the back.
The parking authority board’s decision will formalized on Monday, spokesman O’Rourke said, unless Petri resigns before then.
Staff writer Jason M. Laughlin contributed to this article.