Taxi merger - Page 3

With big changes in store for taxicab regulation, drivers fear ulterior motives by city officials and industry executives

Driver and UTW member Thomas George Williams pointed out that "companies and medallion holders often have the same interests — most companies are owned by medallion holders."

Furthermore, Mark Gruberg, a UTW member, told us, "Everyone would say some things can and possibly should be done to improve provisions of Prop. K. But it's one thing to work around the edges to reform a law and another thing to throw it out the window."

He pointed out that one proposal before the workgroup would allow medallions to be sold for profit, something he said "would be a complete reversal of Prop. K." If other cities are an example, medallions could fetch as much as $500,000 apiece, enough for the holder to retire handsomely. "People that have them would clean up at the expense of the next generation of cab drivers," Gruberg said. "It would be a completely indefensible windfall."

"This is public property, these medallions," Hazelkorn said. "They could be misused as a pension, but that's not a pension that applies to everyone."

When questioned, Heinecke was vague about concrete changes the workgroup might instigate. "This is a delicate position for me because the whole purpose of the task force is to hear the views of all the stakeholders," he said.

Taxi drivers, the serfs of the industry, do not have high hopes about the merger. "If the merger happens, the MTA [officials] will be able to do whatever they please," Williams said. "Everyone knows MTA is always in need of money ... they don't care about drivers or improving industry, only their budget."

Williams worries that, under the MTA, the commission will lease medallions to companies instead of individual drivers, which would "totally ruin the concept of Prop. K." Gruberg agreed. He pointed out that some proposals mention levying a tax on the medallion transfers, a potential revenue source the MTA could be eyeing. "It's a whole new ball game with MTA and if they're so desperate for cash and they see the taxi industry as a cash cow, they might go for any scheme."

MTA spokesperson Judson True told us, "We have no intention of looking to taxi revenue to supplement existing Muni operations."

Judge Kopp said, "By itself that does not disturb Prop. K, but if that's a fig leaf for some recommendation from this ersatz Charter Reform Workgroup, then it becomes ominous." He said dressing the changes in a group with a pithy name like Charter Reform "is not reform, it's subterfuge."

And, he added, Prop. K doesn't need reform as much as it needs enforcement. "They've been at this for 30 years. Their revisions are always to start to restore the pre-1978 conditions and enable them to treat these permits as personal possessions for sale."

Peskin, with the approval of other members of the committee, calendared the full board hearing on the merger for a date after the MTA announces the result, expected sometime this week, of its national search for a director of taxi and accessible services. Solid leadership has been elusive: two years ago the Taxi Commission fired executive director Heidi Machen, reportedly for being too tough on cab companies. Machen was replaced by another Newsom appointee, Jordanna Thigpen, who said she has applied to stay on the job but doesn't know if she'll be selected.

When asked if the merger would unnecessarily stretch the MTA's resources, Thigpen said, "On the one hand you could look at it that way. On the other hand, we're so chronically understaffed. Trying to add staff is so complicated because we're funded by the taxi industry."