Sunday, December 13, 2009

Town Hall Meetings: A Few Thoughts

A few months after I started this blog, I had a talk with Deputy Director of Taxis Chris Hayashi. I asked her what she hoped to accomplish in the way of taxicab reform. She told me that she wanted to come up with a plan that would give enough to all the various interests in the cab industry that everyone would support her proposal.

"No one will get all they want," she said, "but everyone will get something."

"It'll take the wisdom of Solomon," I told her, "to pull that off." What I meant was that I didn't think she (or anyone else) could find a compromise that all the opposing groups would back.

It turns out that I didn't know the lady very well at the time. I grossly underestimated her abilities. As we head into the stretch of the Town Hall meetings, it is beginning to look like Deputy Director Hayashi might very well do exactly what she set out to do. If so, it will be a fantastic feat.

Let's take a brief look at some things that stood against a just and reasonable taxi reform compromise when the Town Hall meetings started:

  • The very real possibility that Mayor Gavin Newsom would take/steal the medallions for a political sound-bite and millions of bucks.
  • The very real possibility that Director Malcom Heinicke and the MTA would enforce their own agenda for a sound-bite and millions of bucks.
  • The very real possibility that President David Chiu and Supervisor Chris Daly of the Board of Supervisors would undermine the process before it started in pursuit of the eternal sound-bite ... and millions of bucks.
  • The very real possibility that the Town Hall meetings were "a dog and pony show" that would later be used to justify any or all of the possibilities mentioned above.
  • The byzantine internal politics of the MTA that threatened to do in Director Hayashi before she had a chance to work her mojo.
And I've yet to mention the divisions within the taxi industry itself. Instead of the usual management vs labor scenario, in San Francisco you have:
  • The Companies that would like to own (or at least control) all taxi medallions. Having the most money, they would like to see an open auction system.
  • Pre-K medallion holders who would also like so see an open auction system. They paid for the medallions and believe they have the right to sell them for the highest possible profit.
  • Post-K medallion holders who think they have the right to retire with dignity instead of being forced to drive cabs when they are 80 years old. These can be divided into:

  • 1. Medallion holders who want to keep their keep their medallions and retire.
  • 2. Medallion holders who would like an open auction.
  • 3. Medallion holders who think a fixed price sale would be more fair.

  • Drivers high on the waiting list who would like the current seniority system of giving out medallions on a first come first service basis to continue.
  • Veteran drivers who never put themselves on the waiting list and think they should be given a medallion as a reward for length of service.
  • Drivers lower on the waiting list who would like to see an auction but are divided on whether it should be open or fixed.
  • Newer drivers not on the waiting list who would like to see an auction but are divided on whether it should be open or fixed.
  • Non-medallion drivers who want Prop-K to continue and think that medallion holders should pay for everyone else's retirement and medical benefits.
Hmmm. There must be somebody I missed? Oh yes - doctors and lawyers who want to see open auctions so they can own taxis as speculative investments like they do in New York City.... and that strange guy who shows up at hearings claiming that driving a bus qualifies him to own a taxicab.

In short, Deputy Director Hayashi faced a perfect storm of conflicting desires and opposing needs.

Added to this was the infamous "cantankerous personality of cabbies" that was summed up for me by a well-known local attorney who told me that he'd started out practicing law representing the taxi business and said that it was the worst year of his working life.

"Cab drivers all think they're geniuses," he said, "they can't agree on anything."

And yet here we are - on the brink of working out a compromise solution to taxicab reform.

We owe ourselves a pat on the back for this: for not fitting the stereotype; for listening to each other; for being more intelligent, flexible and open-minded than anyone could have imagined. As the meetings have gone on, most of us have indeed worked toward a genuine consensus.

Mostly of course we owe this to Chris Hayashi - who armed with little except her extraordinary intelligence and talents, winning personality and humanitarian beliefs, and a copy of the negotiating classic Getting to Yes decided to make this happen.

Those of us who have regularly attended the Town Hall meetings can remember Ms. Hayashi threatening to bring a gun or a whip to the meetings to keep us in line - to get us talking to each other instead of fighting. Of course we thought she was joking but she made her point: either we would come up with a plan or Newsom or Heinicke would do it for us.

Not the least of her accomplishments has been her ability to convince Newsom, Heinicke and the rest of the city's mandarins to back off and let her do her job.

To their credit, they appear to have done so. Of course this could change. The best guarantee we have against it would be to finish what we've started and end up with a proposal that everyone will support.

The smartest thing that Newsom could do would be to let us come up with the plan and then take credit for it.

Tomorrow we can start looking more closely at the stew that Director Hayashi has been helping us cook up.

No comments:

Post a Comment