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Yo, Vince Fenerty: Time’s Up!

He’s an accused sexual harasser. So why is he still a ward leader?

He’s an accused sexual harasser. So why is he still a ward leader?

When trying to understand the predictable insanity of Philadelphia politics, I always come back to the difference between shock and surprise. For instance, it was shocking but not surprising that a personalized, chocolate brown sofa helped land ex-DA Seth Williams in prison. And the feelings aren’t restricted to corruption: It was also shocking but not surprising Bob Brady wore an old Eagles sweatshirt to announce his retirement as Congressman.

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I experienced my latest round of shock but not surprise while recently scrolling through Philly’s roster of ward leaders and seeing Vince Fenerty’s name. The accused sexual harasser and ex-PPA chief is still a ward leader. It gets worse, too: Fenerty happens to be in charge of two wards, the 18th and the 31st, consisting of Fishtown and parts of Kensington and Port Richmond, despite apparently living in neither. His home address is listed as being in Northeast Philly.  

Fenerty is a Republican, but the Democrats have a similar problem. Sheriff Jewell Williams, accused of sexual harassment last fall and called to resign by Mayor Jim Kenney, still leads the 16th ward. That both men still cling to their positions as party leaders despite public sexual harassment allegations reveals not just how little the political world cares about women but how ill-equipped our city’s murky, antiquated ward system is to even handle such issues.

Fenerty was Philadelphia’s version of Harvey Weinstein a year before the #MeToo movement. In fall 2016, The Inquirer’s Mike Newall reported that independent investigators hired by the PPA in 2015 determined Fenerty had sexually harassed a female senior official for two years. The PPA Board then proceeded to strip him of all meaningful duties but continued paying his $223,000 annual salary.

Later, Newall reported another woman had accused Fenerty of harassment in 2007, alleging he unhooked her bra at a work party and once sat on her lap and stuck his tongue in her ear. She declined a settlement offer of $150,000 from the PPA, fearing she could lose her job. She was eventually fired anyway, long before Fenerty. He held onto his sinecure until after the second accusation. (None of the board members—painters union manager Joseph Ashdale, City Commissioner Al Schmidt, Councilman Al Taubenberger, attorney Andrew Stutzman, optometrist Karen Wrigley and Holy Redeemer Health System Vice President Russell Wagner—have resigned since the scandal).

The accused sexual harasser and ex-PPA chief is still a ward leader. It gets worse, too: Fenerty happens to be in charge of two wards, the 18th and the 31st, consisting of Fishtown and parts of Kensington and Port Richmond, despite apparently living in neither. His home address is listed as being in Northeast Philly.

Through the maelstrom, Fenerty’s status as a ward leader has never been in jeopardy. Michael Meehan, chairman of the Republican City Committee, says the problem is that Fenerty hasn’t been charged with a crime. “As repugnant as his activity may have been in this #MeToo (climate),” Meehan says, “I don’t think it’s gotten to that point.” Besides, Meehan claims, he doesn’t have unilateral ability to remove Fenerty: “It would have to start at the grassroots with the committee people, but many of those people are beholden to Vince.”

Vince Fenerty (L); Jewell Williams (R)

Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, didn’t respond to a request for comment about Sheriff Williams. Last fall, he said the party needed to take a “wait and see” approach.  

Nothing about the ward system is easy. You could find more clarity on a glass bottom boat tour of the Schuylkill than browsing through the regulations governing either the Democratic or Republican city committees. And that’s if you’re lucky to find the rules for each party, neither of which are accessible from their websites.  

According to the Republican bylaws—ironically certified by none other than Fenerty—it appears Meehan is right. The avenue to recalling a ward leader like Fenerty involves a couple of options: Two-thirds of his ward’s committee people would need to circulate a petition with the request, and their reasoning. Then, after a hearing at which Fenerty could present his case, 51 percent of them would need to vote him out. Or, two-thirds of other ward leaders could circulate a petition, and 51 percent of them would need to vote him out after a hearing. The Democratic City Committee’s rules are similar.

Neither of those scenarios is likely to happen. Republican ward leaders, who have managed to double down on their lack of power because of inner turmoil after former chairman Joe DeFelice was appointed HUD Regional Administrator, have trouble finding interest these days, much less finding consensus. And committee members, as Meehan noted, are fiercely loyal to Fenerty, who grew up in the River Wards and provided PPA jobs to neighborhood connections for years. Auditor general Eugene DePasquale, in an audit of the PPA, described Fenerty as having total control over a closed hiring process for the organization.      

Nothing about the ward system is easy. You could find more clarity on a glass bottom boat tour of the Schuylkill than browsing through the regulations governing either the Democratic or Republican city committees. And that’s if you’re lucky to find the rules for each party, neither of which are accessible from their websites.

The only recent Republican ouster of a ward leader involved Phil Kerwick in 2008 for a sin seemingly inconsequential to a regular person but mortal in the eyes of parochial politicians. He believed his recall to be payback for circulating a ballot that didn’t include one of the party’s chosen candidates for City Council in the previous year’s election.

When former Mayor Michael Nutter endorsed independent candidate Andrew Stober for City Council in 2015, he drew the ire of Brady, who said the committee would consider sanctioning Nutter for breaking a rule forbidding ward leaders from endorsing anyone but Democrats. Both city committees appear to more concerned about enforcing outdated political rules than they are in protecting women in the workplace.

I called Fenerty to ask about his future as a ward leader, and the conversation didn’t last long. He said, “I don’t talk to reporters” to both of my questions before hanging up. It doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere.

The only reliable way to kick Fenerty—and Williams—out of office involves replacing committee people and seizing control of their wards. The petition process just started for running for a committee seat, and the primary is in May.    

A handful of spots in Fenerty’s 18th and 31st wards are vacant, up for grabs. And given mostly dismal turnout from Republicans, any registered Republican who wishes to run might not even need double digit votes to beat an incumbent. Williams’ 16th ward, in North Philly, also has a few vacant committee seats.

In the weeks after the primary, the elected committee people vote on who they want as ward leader for the next four years. Hopefully those leaders won’t be Fenerty and Williams. Their time needs to be up.

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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