Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How the Parking Authority became a Republican patronage haven

The state takeover of the Philadelphia Parking Authority was negotiated so covertly that not even Mayor John F. Street knew until it was too late.

The state takeover of the Philadelphia Parking Authority was negotiated so covertly that not even Mayor John F. Street knew until it was too late.

Harrisburg Republicans in 2001 tucked the plan into an existing piece of legislation. As the bill was debated on the House floor, the Philadelphia mayor tried with no luck to get the architects on the phone. Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, despite a friendly relationship with Street, signed off.

Fifteen years later, for some, the slight still stings.

Those frustrations bubbled up last week amid a sexual-harassment scandal at the Parking Authority that is still unfurling and led to the resignation of its executive director, Vincent J. Fenerty Jr.

Returning the authority to city control has been and remains unlikely, but even Republicans in Harrisburg acknowledged that the scandal has called the status quo into question.

"I think everything is on the table right now," said Rep. John Taylor, who as one of two Republicans in the state House from Philadelphia holds sway over the authority.

(Taylor has acknowledged being aware Fenerty had harassed a subordinate before the case drew public attention last month. He told columnist Ronnie Polaneczky last week that he tried to persuade Fenerty to leave the woman alone, describing Fenerty's interest in her as "a disaster." Fenerty did not listen. The employee, Sue Cornell, who later filed a formal complaint, gave Polaneczky a detailed account of her stressful experience fending off Fenerty's persistent advances as well as his disturbing texts, gifts, and other unwanted attention. Cornell is senior director of strategic planning and administration at the Parking Authority.)

It comes as no surprise that both the Democrats and Republicans would want control of the agency, which has at its disposal lucrative contracts and employs 1,100 people, slots that can be filled with politically connected friends. The agency has long been seen as a patronage mill, a Democratic one before 2001 and a Republican one after.

The takeover was orchestrated by then-House Majority Leader John M. Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican who for years held tremendous political sway in the Capitol.

Though Perzel, who declined to be interviewed for this article, billed the plan in part as an effort to provide more money to the city's financially strapped schools, it was perceived as an unabashed power grab.

"I went ballistic. Absolutely ballistic," Vincent Fumo, then a senator from Philadelphia and a leader in the Democratic Party, said last week. "It was an arrogant display of power."

Perzel's legislation added new members to the board so it was dominated by state appointees. While the appointments are made by the governor, the leadership of the state Senate and House provide the choices for four of the six board positions. As long as Republicans dominate the legislative branch, as they do now, the party is guaranteed to control the Parking Authority.

Perzel's legislation also gave the new board members inordinately long terms - eight to 10 years - further ensuring that Republicans would maintain long-term control of the agency.

Gov. Wolf will not get to make his own pick for the board until 2022, and that's if he is reelected.

Perzel came to be the go-to person on major policy decisions at the agency. But after he lost reelection in 2010 - and later went to prison after pleading guilty in a political corruption case - Harrisburg's role in controlling the authority became disjointed and diffuse.

According to interviews with numerous state officials, no one stepped in to fill the void when Perzel left.

Taylor last week said issues surrounding the authority are now managed by consensus, not any single person.

The years since the state gained control have not been without controversy.

Payroll ballooned under Republican control. For instance, within six years of the takeover, the number of employees drawing six-figure salaries went from two to 20.

The authority has also consistently fallen short of the $45 million Perzel originally estimated it could provide annually to the Philadelphia School District, with that number ranging from $2.2 million to $14 million over the last decade.

In June, authority executives, including Fenerty, were called before City Council to explain why a recent parking-rate hike did not result in a predicted $7.5 million boost in funds for the district. Officials cited factors outside their control, such as rising pension costs.

The scandal that brought Fenerty's career to a close started last month when the Inquirer reported that an independent investigator retained by the authority last year concluded Fenerty had sexually harassed a woman there over the course of two years. When it was learned that another woman had made similar accusations against Fenerty in 2006, he resigned. He stands to collect an estimated $154,620-a-year pension.

Asked to respond to the events of the last two weeks, elected officials in Philadelphia have decried Fenerty's behavior. But several also raised an overarching concern about the authority's structure. "I was adamantly opposed - didn't have a vote - when it was taken over," said City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who was a freshman councilman at the time. "But it was hijacked in the middle of the night by a couple of legislators. . . . I think it should be back under local control."

He equated it to the state's control of the School District, a comparison also raised by Mayor Kenney.

"Harrisburg has taken over the port, has taken over the Parking Authority, has taken over the School District," the mayor said. "I'd like to see it differently. But I'm not a member of the legislature, so it's hard for me to undo it. Other than to say I wish it were different."

Kenney added that while he could advocate for the city to regain control, changes of that kind often come from "scandals like this."

Drew Crompton, the top lawyer in the Republican-controlled Senate, said he wasn't aware of any movement in the legislature to add a sunset provision to the legislation.

"In this case, I don't know what the rationale would be for a sunset - who do you give it back to? Under whose auspices?" he said.

Taylor said there was never an intent to return the Parking Authority to full city control. But he conceded that the Fenerty sexual-harassment controversy has raised the need to have a discussion about the authority's governance structure and policies.

He stopped short of saying he would back legislation to give the city more power over the PPA's leadership structure, saying such a radical step would require signs of a systemic failure at the agency.

"The board kind of got a wake-up call," he said. "And I think you will see some aggressive action from them."