No more taxicab cheating

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EDITORIAL The embarrassing spectacle of the San Francisco Taxi Commission firing its executive director in a secret 2 a.m. session June 28 demonstrates how out of control the cab industry in this town is. And it shows that the cab companies need much tighter regulation and monitoring.
The commissioners — all but one of them appointees of former mayor Willie Brown, all of them serving despite expired terms — decided to fire Heidi Machen for the crime of actually doing her job: auditing (and often pissing off) the cab companies.
This all happened while the mayor, who had handpicked his former aide Machen for the job, was either not paying attention or not sufficiently engaged (a problem that's becoming all too common these days). In the end, Newsom replaced two of the commissioners, and Machen is getting her job back — but the message that was sent here was atrocious.
The cab industry in this city operates under unique rules, established almost 20 years ago by then-supervisor Quentin Kopp. Nobody can drive a cab without a permit, called a medallion; that's standard for most cities. But in San Francisco the scarce and prized medallions are only issued to active drivers, who have to wait as long as 15 years to qualify. They can use the permits only while they still drive a cab. The permits can't be bought or sold, and revert to the city upon the death of the holder.
But even active drivers only work part of the time, and since cabs are on the streets 24-7, the holders can lease those permits to other drivers for the shifts they aren't working. The lease fees alone are worth about $70,000 a year; it's a nice juicy income for the holders.
The idea was to get the benefits of the medallions into the hands of working drivers. In practice, permit holders use all sorts of tricks to keep from actually having to drive a cab — why work when you can earn that much money without lifting a finger? And some companies, like Yellow Cab, manage to hold on, one way and another, to a huge number of medallions; Yellow alone controls one-third of all the permits in the city.
Past taxi commission directors have operated on a friendly basis with the companies and the permit holders, letting some amazing scams go on without any crackdown. Machen took the radical step of auditing the companies to make sure that the medallion holders were people who actually drove cabs. The industry was furious, and has been trying for some time to get her canned.
When the late Arthur Jackson was president of the commission, the companies got nowhere. A principled straight shooter, Jackson supported his staff and took no guff from the companies. After he died several months ago, Martin Smith, who manages Big Dog City Taxi Service, took over the top job, and Machen has been under pressure ever since.
But there were no grounds to fire her — she's been doing her job, by the book. So the cab companies started getting personal.
Somebody — possibly a private investigator — pulled some old court records and found out that one of Machen's aides was arrested 15 years ago and charged with burglary. It turns out his conviction was later expunged, and the guy's had no further run-ins with the law, but no matter: Cab company representatives, including Jim Gillespie, who runs the San Francisco Taxi Association, hand-carried copies of the original charges (minus the later order dismissing them) to several supervisors to stir up trouble. (They showed the same stuff to Commissioner Jackson before he died; he checked the story out and sent them packing.)
Then company representatives showed up at the hearing to toss out vicious, wildly exaggerated allegations that went way beyond anything in the court records in an effort to smear Machen by association.
The mayor, to his credit, supported Machen in public (after the dismissal), and at press time was planning to reappoint her to the job.