Kevin Riordan: Camden's puzzling pick for key job says he's up to it

Posted: January 10, 2012

The ticket machine isn't working at the waterfront parking garage, but otherwise it seems like business as usual at the Camden Parking Authority.

A hiring "process" singularly lacking in transparency recently yielded a new director of operations named Willie E. Hunter, a loyal Democrat whose most recent job was driving a bus.

That's perfectly honorable work - although I don't get how it prepares a person to direct the operations of a public agency with a $4 million annual budget, 35 employees, two garages, 13 surface lots, and 870 meters.

Then again, this is Camden, a city that lacks the wherewithal to do much of anything - but where anything is possible if you know the right people.

"We hired who we felt was the best candidate and [whom] the board felt most comfortable with," insists Angel Alamo, authority board chairman.

"At the end of the day, this board will be judged by the work that is done to improve the Camden Parking Authority."

I suppose he's got that right. I visited the parking authority's waterfront headquarters the morning after my colleague Claudia Vargas' story Sunday detailing how Hunter landed the job.

A former authority board member who served as the agency's maintenance chief for a few days in 2005, Hunter apparently was the sole person interviewed among four applicants for the $62,500 post. The hiring was approved at a Dec. 19 meeting attended by four of the authority's five current commissioners, with the vote taken after one of the four had left.

Falio Leyba Martinez says he was called away on a family emergency. He and others are now questioning how the authority, which has been without an executive director since the estimable Judy Fulton retired in December 2010, could choose its second-in-command in such a manner.

Hunter's qualifications are difficult to assess, given the seeming unavailability of his resumé. But I'm guessing his winning attributes were enhanced by his longtime affiliation with the Camden County Democratic Committee.

To his credit, Hunter receives me graciously when I turn up unannounced during his third day on the job.

"I'm trying to come in here and do the best I can for the parking authority," the married father of three says. "It's a challenge, but I'm up for it."

Hunter describes his first order of business as "to learn. . . . We have a great consultant. I'm looking forward to working with him and learning as much as possible. He's an expert about parking."

That would be Leonard E. Bier, a lawyer and longtime parking professional whom I've known since he helped the state pull the authority out of the red in the mid-1990s.

Bier's firm was hired in November to take on the authority's executive directorship responsibilities for one year, at a cost of $2,500 a week for 20 hours of work.

"I met Mr. Hunter when he was a commissioner, and we've had meetings since he was hired," Bier tells me. "My mission is to strengthen the authority. I'm there to assist. . . . I stay out of the politics."

Bier also says it is not unprecedented for a former commissioner of a parking authority to be hired for a management post.

"There are going to be some learning curves, and you've got to want to learn, and work along with the staff and our consultants," says Hunter. "If there is something I don't know, I'm sure they'll provide me with the information."

I tell him that from the outside, it looks like he got the job because of his political connections.

"The board chose me," Hunter says. "I think I'm qualified for the position."

Perhaps this is true; let's hope it is.

"I'm here because I jumped at the opportunity to be here," Hunter adds.

I just wonder whether anyone else - say, any other applicants - had the same opportunity.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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