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Parking head's hiring of daughter's roommate draws union leader's ire

Clarena Tolson was named the Philadelphia Park Authority's interim chief, replacing Vincent J. Fenerty Jr, in October.
Clarena Tolson was named the Philadelphia Park Authority's interim chief, replacing Vincent J. Fenerty Jr, in October.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The union leader for Philadelphia Parking Authority rank-and-file workers called the decision of the executive director to hire her daughter's housemate "a slap in the face" Wednesday and said he would ask for changes to the hiring process when the union's contract comes up in September.

Frank Halbherr, president of AFSCME Local 1637, which represents about 500 of the authority's 1,100 employees, said he was worried about "business as usual" at the often-beleaguered agency, now under the leadership of Clarena Tolson.

Tolson was brought on in October to replace Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., who resigned after two sexual harassment scandals. She immediately instituted a hiring and promotions freeze, mandated anti-harassment and ethics training, and pledged reform.

Last month, the hiring freeze was lifted and the authority brought in 12 new employees, including Talasia Garner, Tolson's daughter's housemate.

Garner, 22, will make $48,578 as an administrative assistant to the director of benefits, a new position that is not represented by the union.

"This concerns members and myself greatly," Halbherr said. "If she was hired at the Parking Authority in an entry-level position and worked her way up, God bless her, but to be put into a $48,000-a-year job  — it's a slap in the face to every worker that's writing tickets out there in freezing cold weather."

Tolson defended the hire this week, calling Garner "over-the-top qualified." The authority would not provide any previous employment information on her. Tolson did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Attempts to reach Garner were unsuccessful.

Laurena Tolson, a principal at Add B. Anderson School in Cobbs Creek, who shares a home in Overbrook with Garner, said Wednesday, "I'm not going to comment. My personal life should not be discussed."

Halbherr said he met with Clarena Tolson in the fall and expressed concern about how promotions were given out in the agency. "People get promoted there by not the job they do inside, but things they do outside," he said.

Halbherr said those with connections rise quickly.

"In most workplaces, the longer you're in a position, the better chance you have to be promoted because you know your job," he said. "At the PPA, the longer you're in a position, the less chance you have of getting promoted."

In September, Halbherr said, he wants to ask for changes to the hiring and promotions process. Interviews, he said, carry too much weight in deciding who gets a job.

In December, the authority hosted an ethics seminar for all management employees, which included a section on nepotism, Robert Caruso, director of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, confirmed.

State ethics guidelines say, "No member shall participate as a principal in any transaction involving the commonwealth or any commonwealth agency in which he, his spouse, or child has a substantial personal economic interest."

Caruso pointed out that Tolson did not hire a family member.

"The problem with that issue is, it doesn't meet any of the criteria," Caruso said. "The friend wasn't a member of the immediate family, so that's where our law would have been triggered."

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Wednesday that his office was on target to release the first of two audits on the authority the first week of May.

DePasquale launched the investigation after Fenerty's resignation and in response to questions about how the authority — long known as a patronage haven — hires, promotes, and awards contracts.

The office is doing an audit of personnel and procedures, which soon will be released. A second audit, focused on finance, will take several months to complete.

"What's important is that a full picture of the Parking Authority come to light, and the sooner the better because, again, regardless of the merits of this one hiring, it's important for the entire region that we fix this thing," DePasquale said.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym has called for reform and audits of the Parking Authority, which gives a chunk of its money to the School District.

"It's just disappointing to see what a struggle it is to get the Parking Authority on the right track," she said. "It's very clear that the problems of the Parking Authority are widespread and deep-seated, and we, the public, are paying the price for it."