Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Co-opting the MHA

When I joined the Medallion Holders Association, I assumed that, like most voluntary associations, it was more or less democratic. Of course the ideas of the president and the board members might carry more weight but no major decisions would be made without the full input of and a vote from the general membership. This impression was deepened by the presence of an e-mail forum that encouraged people to freely give their opinions on any and all subjects relating to cabs.

One troubling aspect of the group, however, were persistent and slanderous personal attacks launched over the forum by the treasurer of the MHA, Michael Spain.  Many members wondered why the president, Carl Macmurdo, didn't restrain Spain and Carl always claimed that it was a fee speech issue. Rumor had it that Spain had inherited his job when the former treasurer and head of the forum, Charles Rathbone, quit after a series of attacks on him by Spain.

Still, one loose canon wasn't reason enough for me to quit the group and I confess to taking guilty pleasure in verbally beating Spain up when he maligned people I respected. (One joy of dealing with bullies is that you don't feel that you have to play fair when you fight them.) I was hopeful that, by working though the MHA, I might be able to help give medallion holders a better voice.

The situation within the MHA changed quickly after Newsom make it clear that he intended to "reform" Prop. K (see Millionaire Mayor's Plan to Bail out ... 3/9/09).
  • About half the drivers on the forum saw this as an opportunity to auction off their taxis.
  • The other half wanted to hang on to Prop K at all costs and not put up the cabs for sale.
  • Some members wanted to put the matter to a vote but no official ballot materialized.
Instead Spain started attacking all the people who wanted to keep Prop.K intact. One by one, they started dropping out of the forum. After a series of attacks on Barry Korengold (who was quite able to defend himself by the way), Barry realized the direction the MHA was heading in and formed the SFCDA, taking about 50 or so other MHA members with him.

Rather than easing up, Spain continued slamming anybody who had any idea that ran counter to Spain's view of the world. More and more people on the forum wrote wondering why a guy as nice as Carl didn't put a leash on Spain. The few times he replied on the subject, Carl again gave the free speech argument.

 But - what about the rights of the speaker? What happened to the freedom to express an idea without being libeled? If Carl ever supported or backed up anyone that Spain attacked, if he ever defended a person's right to talk without being trashed, I never read the post.

All of which leads me to believe that Carl and Spain have been playing a good cop/bad cop game: Carl has been using Spain as a pit bull to purge the MHA of heretics to their self-created orthodoxy

I called up Charles Rathbone and ran my idea by him. He strongly disagreed.    

    "That's a conspiracy theory, " he told me. "The board was just afraid to assert control."

He went on to say that he hadn't quit the MHA simply because of Spain's attacks on him. Spain of course had been verbally abusing other people as well and Charles thought that, as head of the forum, it was his duty to protect people from being smeared - so he put Spain on a "read only status." Rathbone quit because Carl and the Board failed to back him up.   

But Charles didn't know about the way Carl had explained Rathbone's exit to me. Carl told me that Rathbone had become a stooge for Luxor Cab, "so Spain did his thing."

Just because it's a theory, in other words, doesn't make an idea false. 

In my opinion, Spain and Carl's are ideological Siamese twins who have used Spain's malicious slurs, more or less systematically, to rid the MHA of all opposition. That accomplished, they and their coterie can show up at Town Hall Meetings claiming that they represent the medallion holders of San Francisco.

Paranoid conspiracy theory or not, the result is much the same. In the words of medallion holder Zachy Maher, "The MHA is hijacked ..." 

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