Patronage Wars: The Philadelphia Parking Authority Edition

Patronage hiring is a widespread practice throughout the world. While patronage has its apologists, its tendency to facilitate corruption makes it an undesirable phenomenon that should be rooted out. Patronage isn’t just a problem in poor countries—it’s also alive and well in rich countries like the United States. The recent scandal at the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) is a case in point.

While the PPA may be famous across the country for its inspectors’ telegenic antics, in Philadelphia the PPA has long been known as a patronage mill dominated by Republicans. In December 2017, the Pennsylvania Auditor General released two separate reports blasting the PPA for closed hiring practices, inflated salaries, questionable spending and contracting, and pervasive sexual harassment. The reports place blame squarely on the former executive director, Vince Fenerty, Jr., who operated as an “unchecked tyrant.” Fenerty, who started out as a Republican ward leader, personally oversaw all hiring decisions at the PPA. Although the PPA has an HR department, no one ever checked up on applicants’ references or qualifications. In fact, Fenerty did not select applicants from the pool of those who submitted applications to the HR Department. As the Auditor General’s report put it, “the former Executive Director had other unknown means of obtaining applications.” He usually interviewed only one person per position.

The PPA’s utter ineffectiveness and shady practices meant that, between 2012 and 2017, $77.9 million was lost or uncollected. Revenue from the PPA goes to the chronically-underfunded School District of Philadelphia, meaning that Fenerty’s misbehavior also had a direct effect on Philadelphia schoolchildren, who missed out on the teachers, textbooks, and technology that $77.9 million could have funded.

How did things go so wrong for so long at the PPA, and what does this tell us about the problems with patronage hiring more generally?

The question of whether political patronage is always a bad thing is much debated, as is the question whether patronage is properly understood as a form of corruption. Even Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said on the campaign trail, “What’s my view on patronage? Patronage employees perform and do a good job and are respectful to the citizens. Patronage has its place.” Some scholars have expressed similar views. It may seem surprising that a mayoral candidate would defend patronage so unabashedly, especially after a 1990 Supreme Court decision found government hiring based on political affiliation unconstitutional. But Mayor Kenney’s statement reflects a common sentiment, embodied by Justice Scalia’s impassioned dissent in that decision, that patronage is a long-standing tradition that serves important functions, including motivating citizens to be politically active and providing opportunities to ethnic and racial minorities to get government jobs by affiliating themselves with political machines.

But the PPA illustrates how and why the disadvantages of patronage may swamp these purported—and illusory—advantages. When employees at a particular agency feel they owe their job to, and serve at the whim of, a leader who hired them as a political favor, they may also feel that their connections insulate them from consequences for poor performance or dishonest practices. Moreover, the PPA example shows how patronage hiring can perpetuate not just inefficiency but also forms of obviously corrupt activity like self-dealing and unfair contracting. For instance, Fenerty inflated payouts for himself and for top managers and engaged in fishy contracting practices. And it’s less likely that the PPA could have gone on functioning in such a state of utter disarray were it not overseen by a partisan Board of Directors that turned a blind eye to Fenerty’s practices and a staff grateful for the jobs he personally handed them.

The practical question for cities like Philadelphia is how to deal with the reality that patronage hiring can create an environment conducive to out-and-out corruption. And if a city is not going to change its enclaves of patronage, it had better keep an especially sharp eye on them. As the PPA example shows, few people on the inside will have an incentive to keep things clean.

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