Here at the Inquirer and Daily News, we have a daily tradition as sure as morning meetings and afternoon deadlines: calling the Philadelphia Parking Authority board for comment.
It’s a ritual that has endured through sexual harassment scandals, revelations of rampant pension padding and comp-time abuses, no-bid contracts, health coverage scams, and report after report on new and creative ways officials have fattened their pockets by raiding authority coffers meant to fund city schools.
It’s a dance. One of our reporters will disclose some new wrong. Like William Bender’s report on how disgraced PPA chief Vince Fenerty, who resigned last year after sexual harassment complaints, converted 300 (!) unused sick days into 10 years of health coverage before walking out the door. Or Claudia Vargas' story on how Fenerty threw his neighbor, SEPTA Transit Police Chief Tom Nestel, $100,000 in no-bid contracts.
Facts in hand, they ring the board. Or text. Or email. Or call, text, and email.
Then they wait.
Sometimes, the board, led by its chairman, Joseph Ashdale, will throw a scrap. He doesn’t actually say anything. Through PPA spokesman Martin O’Rourke, he points the finger at Vince Fenerty, the guy the board was supposed to oversee.
In fairness, Councilman Al Taubenberger is the only member of the five-person board who at least attempts explanations, even if he must sometimes quickly apologize for them.
I usually start with Ashdale, who pulls in $75,000 a year. Good luck getting him on the phone. Bender’s been trying for months. I asked Bender if there’s anything he’d like to know from Ashdale.
"Where exactly are you right now, sir,” Bender said he’d ask, “and how long will you be at that precise location?”
Someone did pick up Ashdale’s cell when I called Tuesday. But the person didn’t say anything after I identified myself.
Was that you, Joe?
A few hours later, O’Rourke sent a statement from Ashdale. It pointed the finger at Fenerty and vigorously listed steps the board has taken since the scandals broke - hiring a new director, bolstering anti-harassment policies, curtailing comp time.
“We must operate with the highest level of efficiency to maximize the contribution to the city and schools,” the statement read.
Board member and City Commissioner Al Schmidt has a rep as a reformer. He won’t answer calls either. Apparently he’s mad that we have not sufficiently pointed out that he wasn’t on the board in 2006 when a first woman stepped forward against Fenerty. OK, listen: That’s true. He was only on the board from 2012, when it failed to immediately fire Fenerty after a second woman came forward, and when it allowed Fenerty to game the authority for years.
I’m pretty confident he’ll be taking my calls now.
The machine at board member Karen Wrigley’s optometry office provides a cell number in case of “emergency.” I can see where this has reached emergency levels. But no reply.
No word either from board member Russell Wagner, senior vice president of finance at Holy Redeemer Health System.
Andrew Stutzman's an attorney at Stradley Ronon, so he’s not afraid of a reporter’s call. “No, I don’t have any comment,” the board member said.
Finally, I got lucky. Joy! Taubenberger called back. I asked the councilman if it wasn't time for other board members to start talking. He didn't want to comment for his colleagues, but said that as member of a state authority, he felt an obligation to pick up the phone. He said he stood by the board statement, but added:
"The public deserves to hear from us."
Got that, Joe?
Ritual done, I visited the Philadelphia School District, where all jokes about the PPA end.
As the district's chief financial officer, it falls on Uri Monson to collect the cash sent for Philadelphia’s children by the Parking Authority. Hearing him describe it, it’s like wrangling the rent out of a deadbeat roommate.
And that’s the way it’s always been, he said. Promise plenty – deliver less and less. No communication. No explanations. Just a check. Usually, late.
Monson pulled the numbers, from the projections of $18.5 million PPA promised the district a few years ago to the $10 million it actually paid last year. This year, the amount is projected to fall again.
“We get the leftovers,” Monson said, running through the items that the nearly $2 million shortfall in recent years could have covered: extra resources for two badly performing schools, money for 17 new teachers or counselors, funds for PSAT prep.
And that's why the board has a lot to answer for.