Should the Parking Authority Have the Power to Ticket … Everything?

Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney wants to explore expanded powers for the legions in light blue.

Should the Philadelphia Parking Authority be put on the case?

Should the Philadelphia Parking Authority be put on the case?

Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney wants the Philadelphia Parking Authority to turn its hyper-vigilant gaze on construction sites, littering, illegally closed sidewalks and possibly an array of other commonplace city code violations, reports Ryan Briggs for’s Next Mayor project. Writes Briggs:

Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney says, if elected, he wants the Philadelphia Parking Authority to issue even more tickets — in addition to the parking variety for which the army of meter readers are already notorious.

He would like to see the PPA issuing tickets for things like litter and sidewalk violations on behalf of the Streets Department or checking construction and dumpster permits for the Department of Licenses & Inspections.

“We need to extend the ability to other departments…to issue tickets. I would like to do that with the Parking Authority,” he said. “We have people, city employees, out in the neighborhoods. They shouldn’t be working in silos, they shouldn’t be cross purpose to each other — and help each other do their jobs.”

It’s an absolutely fascinating idea. What’s more, it’s an early insight into the way a Mayor Jim Kenney might operate.

First, the policy merits. The Parking Authority employs about 250 on-street parking enforcement officers. That’s a lot of eyeballs (context: L&I has 56 code inspectors). And those PEOs, as they’re called, pound the pavement constantly. They’re assigned to specific beats, and they come to know their beats exceptionally well. I mean, these ticket-writers are circling the same city blocks dozens of times each day. If something looks wrong or out of place — say a building starts to lean, or a dumpster is overflowing — odds are good a PEO will have seen it.

Right now, they’ve got the same recourse as any other citizen: Call 311. Kenney proposes giving those extra eyeballs some training and the power to act on that training. Does that mean PPA officers could write tickets to property owners who didn’t shovel their sidewalk? Does it mean they could leave $40 blue and white love notes on trash bins that weren’t taken in? Maybe so. In time.

“This is very much in the preliminary discussion phase,” says Kenney campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt. “He doesn’t envision them issuing tickets so much as it’s — ‘we already have these boots on the ground, they’re very aggressive in managing to find every illegally parked car in the city, we should be using them to alert us when they see construction that looks sketchy or a sidewalks that illegally blocked off.'”

Does that mean no expanded ticketing power? Not exactly. “That may be part of what it ultimately looks like,” Hitt says.

Really, something like this probably only works if the PPA is empowered to do more than report to violations to an under-resourced city department. For instance, it doesn’t help L&I that much to know of a whole lot more low-level problems if it doesn’t have the personnel to respond to those problems.

So on the one hand, this sounds like a really clever idea to beef up enforcement of minor code violations, the sort of thing that isn’t a top civic priority but actually has an outsized impact on urban quality of life.

But that’s not quite the whole story.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority isn’t just a ruthlessly effective enforcement agency. It’s also the biggest remaining bastion of political patronage in the city. And while it is technically state-run, it provides employment to a looooong list of politically connected Philadelphia Democrats and Republicans. There’s a good chance whatever officer wrote your last ticket was hired because they were “sponsored” by a ward leader, or a Council member, or another politically influential Philadelphian. That’s the way the Parking Authority has always worked.

That raises two interesting questions.

  1. Should we be troubled by the prospect of patronage workers — who, by definition, often owe allegiance to one or more political figures — having the power to ticket building owners? Developers? Residents? There’s no evidence I’m aware of that the PPA has used its parking enforcement powers as a political cudgel, at least not in recent years. So maybe that concern is unfounded. But it’s one thing to police anonymous, rotating cars parked on a street. It’s another to look for violations in the fixed urban environment. It doesn’t take much to figure out who owns what building. Will certain ward leaders be tempted to use their PPA sponsor-ees to punish their enemies? I don’t know. But I wonder.
  2. The Parking Authority has shown a propensity to grow and grow and grow, adding staff and powers, without generating a whole heck of a lot of additional revenue for the city it serves. That condition — the compulsion to add more and more staff — is part of the bones of any patronage shop. There’s unrelenting political pressure to find jobs for the allies and hangers-on of politically important people. Giving the PPA more authority seems like a good way to increase patronage jobs at the agency.

That’s not Kenney’s goal, Hitt says. “This is about using existing resources to maximize the city’s reach,” she says. Likewise, Kenney isn’t worried about the prospect of enforcement abuse. “I don’t think he expects these people will exact political retribution against some buildings and some cars but not others,” Hitt says.

Whatever ultimately happens, the fact that Kenney is kicking this idea around offers an intriguing preview of how he might operate as mayor. It’s a novel idea, no doubt, and one that’s progressive inasmuch as it puts a priority on urban quality of life. And yet, Kenney’s tool is the Parking Authority, a patronage bastion run by his old pal, GOP ward leader Vincent Fenerty. Fenerty runs very a tight ship, but he’s not exactly a new school character (I reached out to Fenerty and will update this story if I hear back from him).

It’s an example of the Old Kenney, New Kenney duality we keep banging on about. And barring some historic upset in November, it’ll make for a very interesting four years.