Enforcement agencies like the Philadelphia Parking Authority are rarely popular in the public’s eyes. But the PPA’s newest executive director Rich Lazer, former deputy mayor for labor in the city, is looking to change that.
City & State spoke with Lazer on PPA’s efforts to address quality-of-life issues plaguing many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and how the agency’s boots on the ground play a role in flipping the PPA’s reputation.
What were your experiences like as deputy mayor for labor and what perspective did you bring from that role to this one?
Constituent services were always a big thing for me. That’s where I started out when I started working for Philadelphia City Council. I feel like the municipal government is the first line of defense in hearing every complaint. Whether it’s a federal, state or city issue, it always comes back to the city level and you have to work through that bureaucracy. I cut my teeth in constituent services and really enjoyed it.
At the deputy mayor job with the city, I was dealing with workforce issues. I come from a very blue-collar neighborhood and a working-class family, so that stuff was important to me. We were making sure everyone working in the city, whether private or public sector, was being treated with respect and dignity.
I always thought the PPA could deal more with quality-of-life issues – when we focused on abandoned vehicles, tractor-trailer enforcement in neighborhoods, sidewalk parking or parking around rec centers and libraries, that’s when people started seeing the PPA differently. Our parking enforcement officers have one of the toughest jobs in the city because they’re out in all elements dealing with not-always-happy members of the public. But I think the PEOs really enjoy the quality-of-life work because people in the neighborhoods really like that. We’re trying to make our presence more meaningful and impactful.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the importance of PEOs and your on-the-ground workforce in your daily operations?
The majority of the workforce here at the agency – we have just over 1,000 employees in total – are in the on-street unit or just out in the street. They’re tow drivers and those working in the impoundment lots, but most of them are PEOs. They’re very visible public servants and they’re very recognizable. In my first week, I addressed all the PEO deployments because we had an officer who was shot by someone up in the Kensington neighborhood doing a beat. They’re dealing with all different types of issues and, in my head, I’m trying to think because I’ve never been in their shoes, walked a beat and dealt with the public in that way.
How do I make the job as easy as I can while still making sure they can do their job in a safe way? That’s constantly on my mind. How do we compensate them properly and make sure they feel safe?
How can the city seek to attract and retain more workers, particularly at a time when some may be wary of trusting a public entity like the PPA?
It’s definitely an ongoing battle. I think we have to look at how we pay our city employees … You want to make sure they’re livable, family-sustaining jobs. You don’t want people to work 40-plus hours a week and not be able to cover their life and have to get a second job to cover the kid playing sports.
I think that’s an uphill battle, but you also have to be cognizant of the public’s money and you have to be good stewards of that. It’s a fine line … You need compensation, health benefits and retirement benefits but also to make sure their job is safe and to make any improvements you can.
On the topic of workforce development, can you speak to the significance of public transit?
One of the issues I looked at here was, how does the authority contribute to making the bus routes quicker and making sure they’re not stuck in traffic? How do we make it easier for parents to get across the street or kids to get to school safely? We’re not police officers but we play that public safety role in making sure street corners are clear, tractor-trailers aren’t parked on residential blocks and that the speed camera program is renewed. The data on Roosevelt Boulevard is indisputable about how much speed cameras save lives and cut back on speeding through red lights.
How do we get abandoned, busted-up cars off our streets? How do we make our city safe with bike lane enforcement patrols? I’m looking to grow that … I think all those things play in my mind when I think about different issues we try to tackle.
How have you sought to reverse the narrative around the PPA and what some people view as subjective or random enforcement?
I think the executive director sets priorities for agencies like a commissioner sets priorities for departments. My priority was really tackling these quality-of-life issues and that is something that my folks ran with. I think it’s about collaborating and not working in a silo to really tackle these issues comprehensively and not just one-off.
The employees here are a really good group of people who care about their work and are dedicated. They have taken a lot of crap sometimes. That’s why it’s so rewarding to do the quality-of-life work, because they enjoy it. The place wouldn’t be able to operate without the dedicated people and the dedication they put toward their work.
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