Clarena Tolson chosen to lead embattled Parking Authority

Clarena Tolson (second from left), the Parking Authority's new interim executive director, speaks to Richard Dickson (left), a first deputy executive director at the agency, during Thursday's board meeting.

The selection of a new leader for the Philadelphia Parking Authority was met with praise and skepticism Thursday.

Critics of the authority said that the authority board's picking Clarena Tolson, a Democrat serving as the city's deputy managing director for infrastructure and transportation, was a wise move, given the authority's reputation as a Republican patronage haven and the recent sexual-harassment scandal that led to the resignation of executive director Vincent J. Fenerty Jr. But some said there is more to be done within the agency.

"It's more than just a change in executive leadership," said Councilwoman Helen Gym, who has accused the authority of lacking accountability and oversight. "We actually need an overhaul of the PPA's governance structure that ensures they open up to genuine public scrutiny."

Tolson was approved by the Parking Authority board Thursday to become the authority's interim executive director.

"Today starts a new chapter for the PPA," Joseph Ashdale, the authority's board chairman, said during Thursday's meeting.

Tolson said she wants to restore "morale, integrity, and professionalism" in the agency. She will serve as an interim chief with a salary of $233,677 until a national search for a permanent director is completed. (She will be considered for the permanent job.)

"Every organization has its challenges, so just need to address them," Tolson said. "It's not a new issue for me to tackle complex issues within an organization."

In her most recent role, she coordinated with several authorities and utilities, including SEPTA, the state Department of Transportation, Peco, the Philadelphia Gas Works, the Parking Authority, the Delaware River Port Authority, and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. She also has oversight of various departments, including Streets and Water.

Tolson served as the revenue commissioner for the last few years of the Nutter administration. Before that, she was streets commissioner, going back to the Street administration.

Mayor Kenney said Thursday he offered Tolson as a possibility after Ashdale had approached him for suggestions for Fenerty's replacement.

Kenney said he hates losing Tolson but is happy to see her go to an agency "that needs help."

"She has shown she is innovative and a good administrator and an honest person," Kenney said. "It's the type of fresh approach the Parking Authority needs."

He also said having gender and racial diversity - Tolson is African American - at the helm of the authority is a good thing.

City Councilman David Oh, a critic of the PPA, praised the pick, calling Tolson a "straight shooter."

"Nonetheless, PPA has a problem because of the organization," Oh said. "Vince Fenerty is just one of the manifestations of that problem. Clarena Tolson will not be able to run that organization all by herself."

He called for the board to step down "in whole or in part," pointing to evidence that several members knew of a 2006 sexual-harassment claim against Fenerty when they let him keep his job despite the new allegation in 2015.

Also Thursday, Ashdale announced that the Parking Authority had amended its employee manual to include best practices in regard to sexual harassment.

The changes include a two-page explanation of how an employee should make a sexual-harassment complaint.

The new policy also states that the authority will not permit retaliation against a person who complains "in good faith" about sexual harassment.

"The board is committed to ensuring that all employees have a safe and productive work environment here at the PPA," Ashdale said Thursday, reading from a statement.

Ashdale said that the authority will be hiring an outside firm to review the authority's human resource policies and procedures.

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