When the director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority resigned amid scandal last week, prompting calls for investigations and audits, it felt like old times.
For at least the three decades that I’ve been covering Philly politics and government, nothing has brought the two together with explosive results quite like the parking authority.
A little background: Nearly all of the 20-odd thousand jobs in city government are civil service positions. You don’t get them through political connections.
But the parking authority is different. Though it performs a municipal function, it’s technically a state agency, and it’s one of the few remaining bastions of political patronage.
Back in the ’80s, the board was appointed entirely by the mayor and served at his pleasure. Contracts went to the politically connected, and the jobs — 800 of them back then — went to ward leaders, committeepeople as well as friends and relatives of politicians. Most were Democrats, though a few jobs were set aside for the Republicans.
This invited mischief.
In 1991, it emerged that the parking authority’s executive director, Web Fitzgerald, had several relatives on the payroll, and it turned out his son was the only part-time employee at the authority who was getting full health benefits.
When the city inspector general questioned that, documents were dummied up to provide a cover story. It was a mess, and Fitzgerald resigned.
The PPA changes partiesIn 2001, Republicans in the Legislature got tired of seeing the Democrats get all the spoils, and voted literally in the dead of night to take control of the parking authority away from the (always Democratic) mayor, and put it in the hands of Republican legislative leaders.
It didn’t take long for the GOP to step in it.
In 2004, the Daily News did stories revealing that parking authority employees were being told that to keep their jobs, they had to buy tickets to three Republican fundraisers a year, for a total of $275.
According the paper, the practice was coordinated by a deputy director of the authority named Vince Fenerty, the Republican leader of the 31st Ward.
One parking authority worker told the paper that Fenerty drove his authority car to the worksite to tell the worker he needed to buy the tickets.
“You know you need to pay for these … this as part of the deal when we gave you the job,” the worker remembered Fenerty saying.
The stories were embarrassing, so the parking authority board paid a West Chester firm $20,000 to conduct an investigation. Officials declined to release the firm’s report, but said it found “nothing criminal.”
There was a happy ending for Fenerty, though. The following year he was appointed the authority’s executive director. He held that post until he resigned in disgrace last week.