Philadelphia Parking Authority magic is a con job

Clarena Tolson, the Parking Authority interim director, speaks to Richard Dickson, a first deputy executive director at the agency, during a recent board meeting.

Anyone whose car has been towed in Philadelphia knows the Parking Authority seems to have mystical powers. Even cars parked in legal spots can be magically whisked away before the owner returns. But who knew the authority’s magic extended to records that reveal how much public money its executives had stuffed into their pockets?

Following revelations that former PPA executive director and serial sexual harasser Vincent Fenerty had cashed out with $33,000 in compensatory time, reporter William Bender in January asked for the comp-time records of all authority executives.

Watch closely now. Here’s where the magic happens. The authority first said there were no such records, but — Presto! Change-o! —altered that to say there were records, but they did not include any comp time for PPA deputy directors Richard Dickson, who earns $208,166 a year, and Dennis Weldon, who makes $196,384.

Maybe they didn’t have any comp time because it would be piggish for them to take more than their base salaries. Or maybe their records were wiped to withhold information from reporters, which would violate the state open-records law.

A source gave the reporters records showing Dickson had a balance of 337.13 hours in March 2016, which exceeds the PPA’s comp-time cap policy of 240 hours. The records showed Dickson still had 199 hours in late November and Weldon had 162. So how did their balances dip to zero by January?

It seems interim PPA executive director Clarena Tolson waved her magic wand in October and ended the practice of allowing high-paid executives carry over comp time as if they were hourly workers who weren’t being paid overtime. At a secret meeting, she apparently announced that the executives had given up the hours. But neither Tolson, Weldon, nor Dickson will talk about it — yet another example of the executives’ arrogance.

The problem with their magic trick is that earlier versions of the payment records are stored on computer files. It’s Tolson’s responsibility to find the records too, share them with the public, and reveal whether she plans to pay Dickson and Weldon.

This magic show is a flop because there’s nothing entertaining about executives milking a public agency to pad their pockets.

The state took control of the PPA in 2001 and allowed the city’s Republican party to use it to build a patronage system that provides an army to work elections. The deal included a promise to help fund city schools. PPA minions have their patronage jobs, but the schools have been shortchanged.

There’s no good reason to keep the PPA under state control. Returning it to the city would require certain safeguards, including adding a full-disclosure guarantee to PPA’s charter so information doesn’t magically disappear. But it’s time to stop using the PPA as a hiring hall for politicians and their cronies. The authority has the potential to generate more revenue and play a larger role in making Philadelphia a better city. But that won’t happen until the smoke in the boardroom clears.