PARKING AUTHORITY HEAD COMES UNDER INCREASING FIRE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's parking authority could be stripped of a program that allocates scarce on-street spaces in the city's most desirable neighborhoods, amid concerns of mismanagement by the head of the agency.

Two city councilmen are backing a plan that would transfer the residential parking program to another department.

The proposal is the starkest evidence to date of a revolt in an agency which normally operates quietly but whose operations are keenly followed by residents of car-choked blocks in Federal Hill, Mount Vernon and other areas where parking is a cherished commodity.

The move comes only weeks after five parking authority managers urged the agency's board of directors to oust Executive Director Peter E. Little. The employees' charges included that Little oversaw the selection of new permitting software that one critic said is so flawed that it's a "mistake from which the program might never recover," and that Little has mishandled the agency's budget.

Little said the new software program that debuted last April is an improvement but acknowledged his organization has had some "challenges" in the transition.

As criticism mounted, the Board of Estimates last week delayed a decision on renewing Little's contract, which pays him $123,600 a year. The council has scheduled an oversight hearing on the parking authority for Nov. 18, two days after the proposal to move the residential program is expected to be unveiled.

Councilman William H. Cole IV, who is working on the ordinance with Councilman Edward Reisinger, said complaints from neighborhood residents who help the authority run the program is driving the opposition to Little.

"Despite the efforts of the staff in the parking authority, we have seen a very clear pattern in the last couple of years to indicate the parking authority has no real concern" for the residential program, Cole said.

The residential permit program has been plagued by computer glitches that have prevented some residents from getting permits and visitor passes renewed, and the use of fictitious addresses by those who aren't eligible for permits. Other allegations include the uneven enforcement of program rules by parking control agents, and a general sense that the authority pays much more attention to the municipal garages it runs than to the residential parking system.

Residents aren't the only ones with problems. Employees who work under Little are raising questions about how their boss has managed money and how he has created new jobs and filled them. They've put their concerns in writing, sending them to the agency's board of directors.

Little, a former Standard Parking vice president who has been executive director for five years, said he is working with the agency's board of directors to respond to employee complaints. The panel has five members, four appointed by the mayor and one by the council president.

"There's always room for improvement and we are working hard to work out any kinks that we may have with the system we are using," said Little of the residential program.The agency manages 43 residential permit parking areas throughout the city to discourage long-term on-street parking by visitors to neighborhoods including Oakenshawe, Fells Point and Charles Village. The authority issues from 30,000 to 40,000 residential and visitors permits per year, Little said.

"Parking affects your life every day," said Jon Ayscue, who lives in Remington. "To residents, it is vital. It is quality of life."

Cynthia M. Griffin and other members of a parking authority advisory committee say the new computer software program that the authority began to use in April has left their communities largely defenseless against those who try to cheat the system.

Griffin said the new software program does not allow neighborhood parking representatives to analyze data on permit holders as they could previously, and has made it difficult for them to help the city crack down on expired or fraudulent permits.

She said a parking authority official informed her earlier this month that bugs in the software program might give residents an error message that "no permits are available" when they tried to renew them online, forcing them to call the authority to fix the error.

Little said thousands of residents have used the new system to get their new permits, and he maintained there are safeguards against fraud.

Cole, who lives in the Otterbein neighborhood near M&T; Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, accused Little of not giving the 28-member staff the support needed to fix problems with the permit program.

In September, five parking authority administrators submitted a seven-page memo to the board of directors, posing 39 questions about how Little and his aides had managed money the agency receives from the city. They said they acted because the board did not respond to problems initially outlined in 2006.

The document, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, said Little has opened investigations of employees who have questioned his performance, created two positions that aren't needed, and "edited" meeting minutes to exclude comments from board members.

The memo also says Little has made the process for adding new neighborhoods to the residential permit program more cumbersome.

"We are asking the board to appoint a leader that will communicate with the staff and one that will do what's in the best interest of our organization and us as employees," the Sept. 17 letter to the board said.

The parking authority employees who signed the letter either declined to comment or did not return messages seeking comment.

Little would not address details of the criticism, but said he is "focused on the legitimate concerns they may have."

"I have an open-door policy here and I realize this is a team," he said.

Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, a member of the authority's board of directors, said the complaints leveled by the agency's employees against Little are "factual."

He also said he thought Little had addressed the complaints, but had learned recently that he had not done so.

"Mr. Little should do whatever he can to correct those things. I think Mr. Little is a very, very nice and kindhearted person, but personally I don't want to discuss him in the paper. There needs to be some changes," he said.Patricia McGowan, an attorney with Venable LLP who is chairman of the authority's board, didn't return messages seeking comment.

Andrew B. Frank, first deputy mayor for economic development, said council members expressed their concerns about the residential permit program a day before the Board of Estimates meeting last week. He said the board agreed to hold off on voting on Little's contract because there wasn't enough time to respond.

Frank acknowledged there are "bugs" in the residential permit program, but "nothing that is insurmountable."

"The mayor has complete confidence in the all-volunteer Parking Authority Board and management team," Frank said, citing a list of accomplishments over the past two years.

Under his legislation, Cole said, authority employees who administer the residential permit program would be transferred to either the transportation department or General Services.

Parking control agents who enforce the program would remain in the transportation department, he added.

Some residents, however, say one department should control administration of the program and enforcement, saying splitting duties is "dysfunctional."

R. Robert Harkum, chairman of the residential permit program's advisory board, said all tasks should be under the roof of the Department of General Services. In an e-mail to councilmen, Harkum described the parking authority as a "culture of personal preferences, opinions, and not of following written law." He also said the new software program is a mistake from which the residential permit program "might never recover."

The situation festering in the authority "can no longer be ignored," Harkum wrote.

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