Inquirer Editorial: PPA interim chief has tarnished her 'reformer' badge

Clarena Tolson was named the Philadelphia Park Authority's interim chief, replacing Vincent J. Fenerty Jr, in October.

Changing the Philadelphia Parking Authority from a patronage mill where politicians park cronies in high-priced jobs was never going to be an easy task. But that became even clearer with the recent disclosure that the agency’s new director didn’t think there was anything wrong with how her daughter’s housemate was hired.

Clarena Tolson told staff writer Julia Terruso that Talasia Garner’s qualifications to become an administrative assistant to the director of benefits were “over the top.” But had the PPA advertised the previously nonexistent job, someone with better credentials than the recent Hampton University graduate might have applied for the position, which pays $48,578 a year with rich benefits.

Garner’s resume shows she received good grades and a scholarship. She had typical jobs for a college student, including working in customer service at Pizza Hut and Sephora, a cosmetics retailer. Just how the Maryland native found out about a job opportunity at an obscure Philadelphia agency hasn’t been disclosed.

Tolson says she kept mum when she found out Garner had applied for the job because she didn’t want to send signals that the human resources staff should do the boss a favor. Tolson said she also didn’t want to penalize Garner just because she and her daughter shared a house. But that excuse withers considering Tolson’s being appointed explicitly to change the PPA’s hire-a-hack culture.

The way this hire was handled doesn’t instill much confidence in Tolson to do the hard work it is going to take to change the PPA. Tolson, who formerly held jobs as Philadelphia’s streets commissioner and revenue commissioner, was named the PPA’s interim director in October after Vince Fenerty, who was accused in two sexual harassment complaints, resigned.

The PPA board, which has been under Republican control ever since the state took it over in 2001, routinely showered Fenerty and other PPA executives with raises and perks. The board gave Fenerty so much leeway that he gave his neighbor, SEPTA police Chief Tom Nestel, $100,000 in no-bid contracts to do background checks and other work for the PPA.

The agency’s board didn’t even consider dumping Fenerty until columnist Mike Newall reported the sexual harassment allegations. He was then allowed to resign, rather than be terminated, which opened the door for him to collect not only a $158,628 pension but also $227,228 in unused administrative leave, comp time, sick days, and vacation time.

It’s poor handling of Fenerty’s case should have resulted in the entire board’s resignation, but no one has left it. The board’s performance becomes even more egregious when you consider that under its leadership the PPA has yet to fulfill its commitment to provide $18.5 million annually for city schools.

The PPA’s dysfunction makes Tolson’s behavior particularly exasperating. Her experience as a department head is supposed to help her bring more professionalism to the PPA. Instead she has raised questions about her own integrity. Given the PPA’s history as a full employment program for the politically connected, there can be zero deals that smell like an inside job. Tolson knows that; she should act like it.

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