New Parking Authority director hires daughter's roommate

Clarena Tolson calls occupant of new post 'over-the-top qualified'

When Clarena Tolson was appointed executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority in October, she said she wanted to restore  “morale, integrity, and professionalism” to an agency known as a patronage mill, where friends and family of the politically connected went to get jobs.

Last month, Tolson had her first chance to do some hiring of her own. 

Among 12 new employees under her watch? Her daughter’s roommate.

Talasia Garner will receive $48,578 a year as an administrative assistant to the director of benefits, a position that did not previously exist.

“She’s a young woman that has relocated to the city very recently and, honestly, is over-the-top bright and intelligent, so we got a good catch in her,” Tolson said.

Tolson said she did not consider the connection to her daughter a problem. Rather,  she said, hiring people she trusted was part of her job in cleaning up the authority.

“We want to have an environment where people are professional and really skilled, and that’s what we’re trying to develop in our organization,” she said. “She is over-the-top qualified.”

Garner, who did not return requests for comment, recently moved to Philadelphia from Maryland. She lives in Overbrook with Tolson’s daughter, Laurena, an elementary school principal.

Parking Authority spokesman Marty O’Rourke said there was an opening for Garner because of the retirement of an employee in another department who was at a higher pay level. Garner’s responsibilities will include improving documentation in the benefits department and following up on claims filed there, he said.

The authority also hired two interns, a housekeeper, a part-time security guard, a lot officer, and six parking enforcement officers, O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke said Tolson was not involved in Garner’s interview for the job and will not evaluate her performance during her six-month probationary period. Garner joined the authority after a hiring and promoting freeze, implemented by Tolson, ended in February.

David Thornburgh, president of the good government group Committee of Seventy, said the authority should be more sensitive to appearances.

“This is sending a signal that maybe reform and cleaning up the agency is off to a bit of an uncertain start,” he said. “I would think they’d be trying to send a signal that ‘We’ve got a new lease on life, we’re cleaning things up, hiring people based on merits, not going to fall back into the patterns we had in the past,’ and if that’s the case, this doesn’t sound to me like the best judgment in the world.”

Tolson, a Democrat and the city’s former deputy managing director for infrastructure and transportation, replaced the former executive director, Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., who resigned following two sexual harassment scandals.

Under Fenerty’s watch, the authority’s payroll became dotted with family and friends of authority board members and politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, ranging from secretaries to managers.  The authority has long been a Republican-controlled agency.

As of October, according to the most recent payroll records available, Republican ward leaders and committee people made up 108 of the agency’s 1,100 employees. Many of them live the 18th and 31st Wards. Fenerty is the Republican ward leader in each.

Fenerty also directed $100,000 worth of no-bid contracts over 10 years to his friend and neighbor, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel.

Mayor Kenney has said he supported Tolson for the PPA job. The day she took over he called her “a good administrator and an honest person” and “the type of fresh approach the Parking Authority needs.”

He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Kenney’s spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said the city has no control over the state-run authority. “We didn’t know that and we don’t have any powers to do anything about it,” she said.