Turbulence: Street Bumps Airport Honcho

Posted: March 14, 2000

Not again.

For the second time in two months, Mayor Street's tenure in office has been marked by a nasty, public, high-level firing.

City Aviation Director Alfred Testa was dumped from his $150,000-a-year post yesterday, escorted from his airport office by police and city lawyers after he refused to resign.

By one account, Testa felt compelled to tell the small crowd of onlookers gathered in the corridor that he wasn't being arrested. Just fired.

In contrast to the explosive jettisoning of Communications Director Ken Snyder in January, the administration tried to handle this departure quietly.

"We attempted to treat him with respect and dignity," Mayor Street told reporters last night. "He chose to make an issue of it, and that's unfortunate for him."

The issue, it seems, was Testa's belief that former Mayor Ed Rendell had promised him a multi-year employment agreement before Rendell left office in January.

Street said last night Testa had made that claim.

"It's clear to me that what he is trying to do now is trying to barter his termination into money from the taxpayers," Street said, "and he's not entitled to it."

Reached at home yesterday afternoon, Testa referred questions to his lawyer, Geoffrey Johnson, who declined comment.

Rendell said through a spokeswoman last night he believes a mayor should choose his own team, but declined to comment further. Rendell's last chief of staff, Greg Rost, also declined comment.

But the Daily News learned yesterday that officials of the Rendell administration did research whether such a contract could be granted to a city official, and concluded it was probably not legal.

Testa, a plain-spoken New Englander who took over Philadelphia's airport last April, was summoned to a meeting late Sunday with Street's chief of staff, Stephanie Franklin-Suber. She asked for his resignation, explaining that Street wanted new leadership at the airport.

Franklin-Suber and another source familiar with the events said Testa initially agreed to resign, but decided the next day he wasn't leaving.

So Franklin-Suber dispatched a delegation to his office that included Shawn Fordham from the mayor's office, Police Lt. Richard Ross from the mayor's security detail, along with two city attorneys and the airport's chief of security.

"Mr. Testa got his lawyers on the phone and decided that he was not going to cooperate and leave voluntarily, so we escorted him out," Franklin-Suber said. "He was not led out by the police. He was not handcuffed."

Street was asked why police were involved.

"We're entitled to ask him to leave, don't you understand?" Street said. "And he refused to do that. And when you refuse to do that, we're entitled to say to you, 'you have to leave now.' "

Testa's firing differs from Snyder's in that he wasn't recruited by the Street team. Incoming mayors often replace top officials, and Testa is one, Street said, who came "highly dis-recommended."

Interviews yesterday suggest Testa was not likely to stay, but it probably didn't help that he had a relationship with state Sen. Vince Fumo, the power broker who backed Street's Democratic primary opponent and later hired the ousted Snyder.

Street said yesterday Testa's friendship with Fumo was irrelevant. But it was noticed that Testa's lawyer is from the firm of Richard Sprague, a longtime Fumo friend.

Several observers said Testa's blunt talk and impatience sometimes offended officials he was supposed to work with.

He clashed frequently with Parking Authority director Rina Cutler over airport parking issues, and he made waves by trying to pull the airport out of the city's planned $51 million new radio communications system.

He spoke of sweeping plans to expand the airport, and often urged that its administration be removed from city government.

"He was the classic bull in a China shop, an absolute non-team player," one former official said.

Another was even tougher. "He comes in from a place that has a wind sock and then goes around saying nothing works," the former official said. "He says we have to totally tear down the place and rebuild it, turn it into an authority."

Irene Snyder, president of the union representing airport city employees, said Testa had improved employee morale by listening to their concerns and making changes when he could.

Street scoffed at the notion that a second contentious firing would harm his efforts to recruit talent. "I don't think so," Street said. "Fred Testa has no reason to believe he has a right to stay in the government."

comments powered by Disqus