Many are questioning a parking authority hire in Camden

Posted: January 08, 2012

When Camden Parking Authority Board Commissioner Falio Leyba Martinez walked into the Dec. 19 board meeting, he didn't think much of the agenda: routine. Approve minutes from the previous meeting and bills for the month.

Martinez left just before the meeting ended because of a family emergency.

Then the three board members who remained voted to hire Willie E. Hunter, a politically connected former board member, as the authority's director of operations.

It was the second top-level hire in recent months at the troubled quasi-government agency after it went more than a year without an executive director. A consulting firm led by Leonard T. Bier, a lawyer and expert on parking, was contracted Nov. 21 to temporarily fill that role.

Martinez said he was surprised days later to find out about the hiring of Hunter and is questioning his qualifications and the manner in which he was hired.

"The last day to apply was Dec. 16," Martinez said. "I was thinking it's way too soon."

Martinez said that while he had approved of engaging Bier's firm, he was not aware that any selection committee was involved in the hiring of Hunter or that any other candidate for that job was interviewed.

On Friday, Angel Alamo, the parking board's chairman, did not return calls, and neither did Commissioners Michael Jordan and Barry Moore. (Martinez said Moore was not at the Dec. 19 meeting.)

When reached at home, Commissioner Sanders Kendrick initially acknowledged being on the parking authority board, but when asked about the recent hires, hung up, saying: "You have the wrong guy. Have a great day."

Neither the city nor the state needs to approve of the hires of parking authority staff, said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs.

With a $62,500 salary, Hunter started working in his new job Thursday. Most recently, he was a driver with the South Jersey Transportation Authority, earning $29,790.

Hunter is a longtime member of the Camden County Democratic Committee and is so entrenched in the local party that Councilwoman Dana Burley mentioned him as a mentor during Tuesday's City Council reorganization.

Hunter has a long and turbulent history with the parking authority. He was first appointed a commissioner of the board by City Council in 2001, resigning in 2005 as the board's chairman.

Two weeks later, he accepted the newly created position of director of maintenance for the parking authority. A few days later, he was removed from the $52,000 post when the board chairwoman at the time, Bezaleel Rojas, found out that state ethics laws require board members to wait at least one year before applying for a job with the agency they serve.

In 2008, Hunter was again appointed to the authority's board by City Council, on a motion by Burley. He resigned in May 2010, going to work for the South Jersey Transportation Authority.

His employment history there was not available Friday, but spokeswoman Sharron Gordon said: "We don't have any official request to be discharged from his employment."

Martinez is not the only one questioning Hunter's appointment. Parking Authority employees who had an interest in the position and turned in an application said they were never called for interviews.

The job was advertised on the authority's website and in the Courier-Post. The requirements were a high school diploma, supervisory experience, and three to five years' experience in parking or transportation. It said "selected applicants will be notified for an interview."

"There's a concern that this person doesn't have a real background in parking," said Karl Walko, president of Camden County Council 10, which represents about 30 of the rank-and-file employees at the authority.

The agency has encountered financial difficulties in the last year, mostly because of snow-cleanup bills, increases in pension payments, and downtown construction that cut revenue by blocking parking meters for months.

As of the end of November, the authority was $66,000 in the red, and in its 2012 budget it predicts another year of financial uncertainty.

Even so, it plans to donate $200,000 to the cash-strapped city, a year after it gave $219,000. Last year, in a one-time gesture, it also paid the city nearly $281,000 for police protection in its downtown lots and garages. At the time, Alamo said the money to the city was intended to ameliorate police layoffs.

Lou Grossman, who was let go as operations director in October, said last week that he was dismayed his contract had not been renewed and expressed skepticism his successor would be up to the job.

Grossman himself had applied to become executive director, a post that was held for a decade by Judy Fulton, who retired in December 2010. Some other employees of the authority also had applied for the top job.

"It's really sad," he said Friday of the hiring of Hunter and Bier's firm. "I don't know how this is going to help Camden." He said he had retained a lawyer to explore a possible claim of wrongful termination. He was out on disability when his contract ended.

Bier Associates was chosen to perform the functions of the executive director from two responses to a selection committee's request for proposals.

Leonard T. Bier is the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Parking Authorities and Agencies and has been legal counsel, interim director, or consultant for various parking agencies throughout the state.

He was interim executive director of the Camden parking authority between 1996 and 1997, during a state takeover of the agency.

His firm's price tag for the one-year contract to supervise job performance, review operating procedures, and identify areas of improvement: $2,500 for 20 hours per week.

Anything over that would be paid at hourly rates for Bier and his staff members - up to $200 an hour.

Neither Hunter nor Bier could be reached Friday.


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or @InqCVargas on Twitter.

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