Pay up PPA!: Philadelphians deserve a public forum to discuss the Parking Authority
Update: Pay Up PPA! will hold a press conference at 9:15 a.m. on March 19 before the next PPA meeting at the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s headquarters, 701 Market Street, Suite 5400 .
If it’s a new year, it’s a new scandal at the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The perennially challenged agency made news again when it was revealed that its chairman, Joseph Ashdale, worked to kill a City Council hearing on the PPA. This continues a string of recent incidents demonstrating that it’s still business as usual, despite claims from the Parking Authority leadership.
The agency has continually refused public dialogue and comment, continued to be a patronage mill, and avoided accountability at every turn. Pay Up PPA! renews our demand for a public hearing in light of Ashdale’s comments, which were caught on an FBI wiretap. In 2016, when City Council members wanted an audit to see whether the PPA was withholding money from city schools, Ashdale said to Council Member Bobby Henon that he wanted to know who was going to vote for the audit. “I want, see, just see who the f***’s going do it and who’s not, because nobody is going to get a f***ing job out of there, or a f***ing penny out of it.”
In December 2017, the Philadelphia Parking Authority dominated headlines after a public audit was released. The audit centered on a sexual harassment scandal engulfing the PPA’s board and leadership. This scandal led to the removal of its former director after a few more excessive executive-compensation schemes were uncovered in its aftermath. This led to the formation of Pay Up PPA!, our group of grassroots activists, public school supporters, and faith and labor organizations dedicated to holding the Philadelphia Parking Authority accountable.
For the last year, Pay Up PPA! has attended every board meeting to advocate for a transparent and accountable Philadelphia Parking Authority and for dedicated and recurring revenue for the Philadelphia School District, and to ask questions of its leadership. Our presence at these public meetings was often met with animus by the leadership of the Parking Authority, with some board members suggesting to our group that these meetings were not the place for public discussion.
When Director Scott Petri took over at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, he often said he wanted to be forward-looking. However, with each passing board meeting, we’ve seen these meetings become pro forma sessions where the board largely approves amendments without question or debate. We have also seen the agency increase its use of executive sessions, where no notes are taken. The public’s only knowledge of these events is through an after-the-fact acknowledgment that an executive session happened.
A recent example of this was the announcement leading up to the holidays that the Philadelphia Parking Authority would provide free parking for suburbanites in December. The move was criticized for incentivizing the wrong transit options and eliminating nearly $100,000 a day in needed revenue. In addition, PPA leadership admitted to the lack of economic data to support its efficacy. Without public dialogue, these out-of-touch decisions will continue. Continuing with this trend, at the January board meeting, there was no mention of another recent revelation that the Philadelphia Parking Authority was heavily ticketing areas designated for street sweeping, but the areas saw little or no actual sweeping.
Most egregiously, and discovered through right-to-know requests from Pay Up PPA!, the Philadelphia Parking Authority has continued its history of patronage hires. In the fall of 2018, it was revealed that Petri was copied on emails directly related to the hiring of disgraced Police Officer Ryan Pownall, at the request of suburban Republican state representative. Petri previously denied knowledge of this hiring in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The board never publicly mentioned or questioned him about the hire of Pownall at any board meetings.
It was also discovered in 2018 that the Philadelphia Parking Authority was employing a consultant with little documentation. This particular consultant received over half a million dollars in total fees over years with little explanation as to what his scope of work was. The Parking Authority was elusive when questioned on this, offering few details.
The latest revelations show that the PPA is still in desperate need of reform. Philadelphians have the right to a transparent and accountable agency to ensure all deserved revenue is going to the Philadelphia School District. It was the recurrence of these type of stories, even after the public scrutiny the agency faced from Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s report, that led to a new public audit currently being carried out by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.
Pay Up PPA! looks forward to the completion of the city’s audit for the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s On-Street Department this spring. In the meantime, Philadelphians deserve a public forum for discussion about the Parking Authority. And if the board meetings are not the place to do it, as we’ve been told, it should come from City Council. We have made this request of Petri so Philadelphians can have a full accounting of their parking authority.
Jolley Bruce Christman is a member of Pay Up PPA!