A Philadelphia Parking Authority board member on Thursday defended letting the agency's executive director, Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., keep his job after he sexually harassed a coworker, describing his advances as "a high-school puppy-love situation."
"Can it be interpreted as harassment?" City Councilman Al Taubenberger, who is on the Parking Authority board, said. "Absolutely, because she felt uncomfortable. She brought it to the proper authorities, but always saying very clearly - very, very, very clearly - 'All I want is this to end. I want to work with the people I work with.' And that included Fenerty."
But others, including two of Taubenberger's Council colleagues, a government watchdog, Mayor Kenney, and the chair of the city's commission on women, sharply questioned the decision to keep Fenerty in his $223,000 post while reducing his authority.
"His continued employment sends the message that sexual harassment is OK, and that the harm caused can be erased by monetary payment," Felicia Harris, head of the commission on women, said in a statement, referencing the $30,000 Fenerty paid to the law firm that investigated the allegations against him. "Sexual harassment can't be written off like a parking fine."
Kenney called Fenerty's behavior "unacceptable and repugnant."
The criticism came the day after the Inquirer reported that an independent investigator retained by the Parking Authority last year found Fenerty had sexually harassed a senior director there.
The woman, whom the newspaper has not named, said Fenerty over the course of two years "engaged in a series of unwanted and repeatedly discouraged sexual advances" including "inappropriate touching and other untoward, unprofessional conduct."
As punishment, Fenerty agreed to pay the investigator's fee and was stripped of several important responsibilities, including hiring, firing, and giving raises to upper-level employees without approval. He also cannot take overnight work trips without permission from the board.
The woman who made the allegations did not return calls for comment. Fenerty, through a spokesman, declined to comment, as did City Commissioner and Parking Authority board member Al Schmidt.
Taubenberger did not show the same hesitation. Asked about the harassment, he described little more than persistent and perhaps aggressive flirtation. He said that on a work trip Fenerty kissed the woman goodnight, then later asked if she would attend the next trip out of town.
According to Taubenberger: "He kept saying, well, you know what, we had such a good time - essentially, and I'm paraphrasing, this is my interpretation - you know what, we have another convention coming up in a month, why don't you come along? Because this will be pertaining to you, and, bup, bup, bup, this is your expertise. I'd like you to come along. And that was pushing a little too hard."
Taubenberger said the board carefully investigated the claims, adding that some members had concerns the woman might have only received her current senior-level position because of Fenerty's interest in her. He said the group later decided the woman was promoted on her own merits.
As for the punishment, Taubenberger acknowledged sexual harassment on face value is a fireable offense.
"It is," he said. "But ... we're all human beings. You have to make a judgment call on, how serious was it?"
He added that Fenerty would have been fired if the board was aware of any similar allegations against him.
After his remarks referring to Fenerty's advances on the woman as "high school puppy love" gained attention Thursday, Taubenberger issued a statement calling the choice of words "in retrospect ... wrong and regrettable."
"In no way did I mean to infer that any instance of sexual harassment isn't serious and reprehensible," he said. "There is no place for sexual harassment in the workplace. Period."
Fenerty, a Republican ward leader in the city's 18th Ward in Kensington, has been the authority's executive director since 2005. He has worked there for more than 30 years and claims the distinction of putting the authority's first boot on an illegally parked vehicle, a blue Chevy van, in 1983. The authority, a state-created entity, is the only agency in the city controlled by Republicans.
Kenney on Thursday said he has known Fenerty for years and questioned how he could effectively do his job after losing some of his responsibilities. He called the fact that Fenerty sexually harassed an employee "unacceptable and repugnant."
"That activity and that behavior would not be acceptable in this office, and that person would be gone," said Kenney. "So it's up to the board to do what they have to do."
Some of Taubenberger's colleagues on Council also weighed in.
"He is supposed to manage this organization," Councilman David Oh, a Republican, said of Fenerty. "And there is a continuing issue that is now coming to light. And I think it raises a lot of concerns about his ability to manage and what message the Parking Authority is sending."
Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat, echoed Oh's disappointment.
"There's absolutely no place, there should be no place in the city, for sexual harassment," she said. "And for entities that would allow that to be tolerated."
Both called for more oversight of the agency and said they planned to bring for a vote next week a resolution urging a full audit of the agency. Securing enough votes, however, may prove difficult. The resolution was first introduced in June and, lacking support, was almost immediately tabled.
Gov. Wolf's office, in a statement, stressed that while the PPA is a state authority, the governor does not have the power to remove its staff. The office called any sexual harassment "abhorrent and unacceptable."
"Gov. Wolf would urge leaders of any organization, including the board of PPA, to take sexual harassment seriously and mete out serious discipline to offenders, including termination of employment," the statement read.
David Thornburgh, head of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog, said the public is entitled to an explanation as to why the authority went in another direction, limiting Fenerty's responsibility but not firing him.
"You're going to great lengths to basically strap the guy to a chair and blind him and gag him and not let him do anything, and we're paying him $233,000 a year," Thornburgh said. "Which makes you wonder, why haven't they just fired him?"