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What's behind naming Camden parking garage after Hinson?

The 18-inch-high, polished bronze letters spelling "Melvin R. Primas Jr. Camden City Hall" gleamed as throngs of elected officials and community leaders gathered last month for the official renaming of the building for the late mayor.

The 18-inch-high, polished bronze letters spelling "Melvin R. Primas Jr. Camden City Hall" gleamed as throngs of elected officials and community leaders gathered last month for the official renaming of the building for the late mayor.

Just over two weeks before that, a different Camden edifice just blocks away, the waterfront garage, was named after another former city political figure - Theodore Hinson, the late executive director of the Parking Authority and chairman of the city Democratic Committee.

This renaming has not drawn much fanfare, but it is sparking criticism.

Hinson left his job under a cloud, the critics note. The authority went $1 million in the red during his tenure, and he was forced out amid accusations of wasteful spending.

Mayor Dana L. Redd responds that "the good far outweighs the bad. . . . He wanted to give everyone a job."

Redd, who was comptroller for the authority during Hinson's tenure in the early 1990s, said naming the garage after him is a "befitting tribute" because he worked hard with the redevelopment of the waterfront. "He really wanted to see Camden come back," she said.

It has been more than a month since the two silver-gray signs for the Theodore "Teddy" Hinson Waterfront Garage went up. A dedication ceremony is planned, Redd said Tuesday, but she did not say when it would occur.

The authority's current interim executive director, Lenny Bier, said its board wanted to acknowledge Hinson's contributions to the authority and the waterfront.

During his tenure as executive director, Hinson helped find funds to build the 720-space garage. He died in 2010.

"The family and I are honored," said Hinson's widow, Novella, who is Redd's chief of staff and who approved of the idea to name the garage after her husband. "Teddy [was] such a force in helping people for over 30 years. . . . His commitment to service is second to none."

But a former board member and a former official at the authority during Hinson's term are aghast that the garage is being dedicated to the former director.

"It's absolutely inappropriate," said Peter McHugh, a former authority board chairman, who started the investigation of Hinson's spending that led to a temporary state takeover of the authority.

During Hinson's reign, the payroll grew to a high of 131 employees. Some say the hiring spree misjudged the traffic expected from the imminent opening of the New Jersey State Aquarium, now the Adventure Aquarium, on Camden's waterfront.

The agency currently employs about 30 people.

City activist Frank Fulbrook says there was also a political motive in all the hiring under Hinson: The Parking Authority was a repository of patronage jobs, especially in 1993, when the city changed over to partisan elections and all seven City Council seats and the mayor's position were up for grabs, Fulbrook said.

"He had to keep the patronage jobs through June," Fulbrook said, suggesting Hinson was seeking to build support for the party slate.

The payroll expenditures left the authority with $1 million in debt. But according to Inquirer articles at the time and the recollections of McHugh and the former director of parking enforcement, Fernando L. Lugo, Hinson continued to spend extravagantly.

"A lot of things he was doing were under the radar - sending flowers and catering to people who had nothing to do with the Parking Authority," said Lugo, who retired this year after 26 years at the authority.

Hinson, who made $87,000 at the agency and drew criticism for his professional and personal use of two cellphones and a Lincoln Town Car courtesy of the authority, was forced by the state to take a salary cut and reduce spending.

Bier, a parking-management consultant hired last year to run the authority, was also the rescue man in the mid-1990s.

He said the authority's debt at the time was due to lack of activity on the waterfront.

"The aquarium's revenue dropped significantly. ... Sony theater didn't open until 1998, there was no Children's Garden," Bier said. (The Blockbuster-Sony outdoor concert venue is now named the Susquehanna Bank Center.)

The waterfront garage opened in 1992 to provide parking for the aquarium, which opened that year, and for future developments such as the Delaware River Port Authority administration building, Bier said.

The $8 million garage was financed through grants and a New Jersey Urban Development Corp. loan, which was repaid in full.

The authority board, now led by Angel Alamo, proposed in September 2011 to name the garage after Hinson. However, money was not available until this year to complete the project, Bier said.

The authority paid Allied Environmental Signage of Eatontown, N.J., $119,000 to put the 37 characters that spell Hinson's full name on both sides of the garage with lighting fixtures above the sign, plus a plaque with Hinson's image and biography that has yet to go up.

The Camden County Board of Freeholders picked up the tab for the three Primas City Hall signs at each end of City Hall for $35,000.

The county also picked up the $3,000 tab for the naming this year of yet another city structure - the downtown branch of the Camden County Library. It was named after former Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez.

Cruz-Perez, now an outreach coordinator for the Camden County Improvement Authority, was a Democratic assemblywoman in the Fifth District from 1995 to 2010 and was known for community involvement.

She was criticized by some community members for cosponsoring legislation enabling the extension of the controversial state takeover of Camden.

Hinson was a political mentor to Primas, Cruz-Perez, and Redd.