Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Double Negative: The Board of Supervisors Votes Not to Not OK the MTA Budget

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted this afternoon not to reject the MTA's 2009-2010 budget. Supervisors John Avalos and David Compos spoke at length against acceptance  of the budget - Avalos with a passion that Chris Daly (see photo) found entertaining - but, in the end, the opposition didn't have the votes.

It takes seven votes of the Board to overturn the MTA's budget and only Five Supervisors - Avalos, Compos, Daly, Mirkarimi and Mar - raised their voice votes against accepting it. Supervisors Alioto-Pier, Chiu, Chu, Duffy, Elsbend and Maxwell voted not to reject it.

President of the Board, David Chiu, had the final words. He said that San Francisco was a city with public transportation at it's heart.  He expressed concern about a raise in fares working a hardship on the poor. He thought that the "burden" of funding MUNI should "not fall only on the backs" of the those who used public transportation but on the public at large.

No mention was made of the $15 million alloted for the Taxi Medallion Program so it will be part of the budget. 

There is considerable confusion about what this means. Some people think that it's a "reserve" but I don't think that that is the case. The money has been alloted. What it has been alloted for is vague. The money could be raised by:
  • Issuing 100 new medallions. 
  • From transfer fees for auctioning off existing taxi medallions.
  • By charging medallion holders fees to fund medical and other benefits ala Chiu and now Daly.
The final budget doesn't call for a specific plan but it does put the money in the budget.

The confusion comes in because the $15 million would not be used unless the MTA comes up with specific plan to use the money. The MTA has a "contingency" plan to wipe the $15 million off their budget if they fail to come up with such a plan.

But ... coming up with A Plan is what Chris Hayashi's Town Hall Meeting are for.

In short -  by hook or by crook, one way or another, the City intends to use our backs to carry a huge burden in the funding of Muni.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Open Letter to Supervisor Daly

Dear Supervisor Daly,

Let me begin by saying that I admire your courage in putting your name on a piece of legislation that is almost certain to fail.


The simple answer is because every proposition concerning taxicabs put on the ballot for the last 30 years has failed. And, this applies not only the propositions to change Prop K but every one - including a measure put forth by the UTW in the 90s that is very similar to the one that you are proposing now. If I recall correctly, it lost by a ratio of 7 to 3: or, was that 8 to 2?

And, why did they all lose? Because of the Two-thirds Rule.

This needs a little explaining.

You keep seeing the same faces from taxicab organizations over and over again and you naturally assume that they represent large groups of people. I'm sure, for instance, that you think the UTW represents the majority of non-owners. They don't. Not even close. The vast majority of drivers in this city aren't represented by anybody. As with every other taxi group in the city, a small elite makes the UTW's policies. The rank and file rarely even know what their leadership is doing. The only exception to this is the SFCDA.

In addition, the taxi business in San Francisco is more complex than other businesses. The usual power alignment, for instance, is management vs labor. But with taxicabs you have management, medallion holders and non-owner drivers. On some issues medallion holders side with management. On others, they side with the non-owner drivers. Sometimes management and the non-owner drivers oppose the medallion holders.
It's actually more complicated than that but the upshot is that almost any issue that favors one group will be opposed by the other two groups - thus the Two-thirds Rule. Every piece of taxi legislation that has been voted down fit this paradigm.

Your proposal is no exception.

You may think, because non-owner drivers are clearly in the majority, that they will naturally favor your legislation. However, including a requirement for medical benefits etc from the MTA will have the opposite effect. Since the MTA is in debt, the money could only come from medallion holders. And, imposing that $10,000 fee that Supervisor Chiu desired would render the medallion practically worthless - certainly not worth waiting fifteen years on a list to get.

Your measure would be opposed not only by the medallion holders but by the drivers on the list and anybody else who wants to own a cab some day.

There is your Two-thirds and it's against you. Add to this the fat wallets of management and you will have formidable opposition.

In any case, our position will be easy to sell to the thousands of voters that we collectively talk with in our cabs everyday. No other business is being targeted for the onerous fees that your legislation implies. We will have the sympathy of the public on our side.
What I don't understand, what baffles me, is why you are even thinking of putting such a proposal on the ballot at this time.

You must be aware of the Town Hall Meetings that have been going on to study the taxi business and possibly come up with legislation to make reforms. These meeting are the best thing that I've seen in my twenty-five years of driving a cab. In Chris Hayashi the city's uncovered a jewel. She's intelligent, has an open and inquiring mind and has earned the respect of everyone in every faction of the taxicab business.

The meetings are already dealing with a dozen proposed changes (or not) to Proposition K - including the one that you want to put on the ballot. The meetings are open to everyone from all the various interest groups involved. Under the leadership of Ms Hayashi, a consensus may well be reached that will lead to legislation that will benefit not only all the drivers but the city and the public as well.

Why don't you let Ms Hayashi do her job?

If you don't like what she comes up with, you can always draft a ballot measure in the spring.

And, oh yes - if you think the UTW really represents the majority of drivers in San Francisco, why is Mark Gruberg running around so frantically trying to co-opt and bypass the democratic process inherent in the Town Hall Meetings?

Save me and the other two-thirds of the drivers the trouble of successfully mounting a campaign to dump your proposition in the fall. Save the city from wasting it's badly needed money on a measure that is doomed to defeat.

Save us all from wasting time and energy. Please table the measure.


Ed Healy
Cab Number 572

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Board of Supervisors Again Delays Voting on MTA Budget

Last week's post about the Board of Supervisor okaying the MTA budget turned out to be premature. 

As of yesterday, the Board of Supervisors still has not decided whether to okay the budget or not. Supervisors Chris Daly, John Avalos and others were against okaying the budget because of cuts to transportation while supervisor Sean Elsbernd seemed interested in working out wage concessions from the muni drivers. In the end the supervisors decided they needed more time for negotiation and a majority voted 7 to 4 to put off a decision until next Wednesday, May 27th at noon.

Once again the $15 million budgeted extraction from taxicab drivers was not a subject deemed important enough for discussion.

Before the meeting, however, the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association (SFCDA) held a protest attacking the proposed $15 million theft. The general theme was that "the city should not try to fix it's budget problems off the backs of cab drivers." The action attracted a couple of dozen enthusiastic drivers including former MHA members: SFCDA president Barry Korengold, Victoria Lansdown and myself.

The event was covered by radio and tv.

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 ..." 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Board of Supervisors Close Doors and Okay MTA Budget

Late last night, behind closed doors, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted not to vote down the MTA's budget. Some compromises were reached on various aspects of the budget but apparently the $15 million that may or may not be taken from the cab business remains as part of the package. 

We don't know for sure because the subject apparently was thought too insignificant to mention by the Chronicle reporter. Whether or not to extract money from us was apparently not discussed by the supervisors. We don't know for sure. It was behind closed doors.


I'm not as familiar with the Board of Supervisors as I am with San Francisco commissions but it appears that the board is even more secretive. Last week they didn't allow any public discussion until all the items on their agenda had already dealt with by them. Which is a not very clever way of discouraging public discussions. 

You would think that the members of the Board would be more open because they can be voted out of office. But, that clearly is not the case with this group.

Does anybody know if the Board of Supervisors has historically behaved like this? Or, is this particular Board especially self-absorbed and non-responsive to the public?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An Open Letter to the Board of Supervisors

Dear Supervisors,

I'm writing in regards to the MTA's budget item to extract $15 million from cab drivers. The way this should be done has been deliberately left vague but there are least three plans floating around:
  1. The MTA would raise funds by auctioning off 100 new taxis and keeping all the money.
  2. The MTA would sell the right to medallion holders to auction off their medallions for an upfront fee of $50,000.
  3. Under your own plan, the medallions would not transferred or sold. Instead, medallion holders would be hit with fees (some say as high as $1,000 per month) to cover a variety of things including including health benefits for drivers, a plan for a centralized dispatch system and San Francisco's deficit.
While there is disagreement between the Mayor, the MTA and yourselves over how to use the money that is taken from the drivers, there appears to be none about the city's right to do it.

Well ... I've been a cab driver for twenty-five years, the medallion holder of cab 572 for three years and I'd like to politely disagree. For the following reasons:
  1. When the people of San Francisco voted for Prop. A, they voted for the MTA to run the taxicab business - not use it as a source of revenue.
  2. There is a double standard involved here. You set up a special election to let the public vote on whether or not to impose 1.395% Gross Receipts Tax on large corporations but San Franciscans don't get to vote on whether or not you can hit us with tax rates fifty time higher. 
  3. We are the only group of people mentioned in the budget that are being targeted for the implementation of special fees. The MTA is trying to raise money from everyone else by raising ticket prices.
  4. The amount of money that the MTA wants to raise from us is exorbitant and extortionate.  We are one of the biggest item on the budget. The largest item, $28 million, would fall on hundreds of thousands of Muni riders. The MTA wants to get $15 million from 1,500 cab drivers. The arithmetic works out to $10,000 per cab driver and around $100 from everyone else.
It's clear from this that the Mayor, the MTA and you at the Board of Supervisors think of us as belonging to a different category than the rest of the citizens of San Francisco. We are given by you neither the legal rights of a corporation nor the protections accorded to labor. The mere fact that you are even thinking of imposing fees or taxes on the above, outrageous scale shows that you consider us as an underclass, as perhaps a semi-criminal class, that you can impose fines upon for the crime of - being a cab driver.

You wouldn't for a moment think of charging special fees to people for being African American or Asian or Brazilian or Mexican or Russian or an immigrant. 

But most cab drivers are African Americans or Asians or Brazilians or Mexicans or Russians or  immigrants. 

I'd like to ask you to think of us as small business people, as workers, as human beings for a moment and reject these unfair and unreasonable fees and taxes.

Thanks for you time,

Ed Healy
Cab Number 572

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Twain, Groucho & Mencken on Politics and Politicians

"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedies."
--- Groucho Marx

"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right."
--- H.L. Mencken

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and thus clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
--- H.L. Mencken

"In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing."
--- Mark Twain

"When politics enter into municipal government, nothing resulting therefrom in the way of crimes and infamies is then incredible. It actually enables one to accept and believe the impossible."
--- Mark Twain

"The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.
--- Mark Twain

Remind you of anyone?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Micro History of Taxicab Crises or the Dog and Pony Shows

Every seven or eight years a new Mayor decides that he or she is going to make political hay by "fixing" the taxi business. I haven't fully checked this out but I believe a "cab crisis" usually coincides with a cut back in bus service - as is the case now. By making a show of "improving" the cab service, the Mayor in question hopes that the voters will forget that they are waiting longer for buses.

It's an easy sell. The public thinks of "cabbies" as scumbags morally superior only to lawyers, there's always somebody somewhere who can't get a taxi and common wisdom states that more cabs on the street equals better service. The common wisdom is false. But the truth or falsity of a statement never stopped a politician from making it.

Mayor Dianne Feinstein, for instance, declared a taxi crisis in preparation for the 1984 Democratic Convention. Feinstein wanted to be chosen as the first female Vice Presidential candidate so she had even more than the usual motivation. Attacking cab drivers, however, probably turned out to be one of her few political miscalculations. The ruckus raised by protesting taxi drivers (it included drivers backing up in front of City Hall in order to make that beep-beep-beep noise) was hardly the sound-bite that the Party of Labor wanted to hear. They chose Geraldine Ferraro instead.

Feinstein, however, started a pattern by setting up a commission to "study" the cab "problem." The commission of course consisted of five guys who owed their political careers to her. They in turn passed the study on to a young Lieutenant (whose name I have forgotten) and instructed him to delve into every aspect of the business.

One thing he was supposed to do was get input from the drivers themselves. He set up a meeting with a group of us. I was a rookie then but we calculated that there was more 150 years worth of cab driving experience in the room. Everybody was eagerly looking forward to finally telling somebody how the business actually worked.

But, instead of asking questions as he'd been instructed, the Lieutenant told us what his study had found. As I recall, he didn't like being interrupted either. What he had found was that the cab business worked just like Dianne Feinstein said it did.

 It was a great career move for the Lieutenant. He was commended by the commission and shortly afterwards was promoted to Captain. A few years later, he became Commander of the Taravel station. Last I heard he'd retired and was doing well in a private law practice. 

The pattern had been set:
  • A cab crisis is declared. 
  • A commission is appointed to study the problem. 
  • Cab drivers protest and talk for a minute or two at commission hearing where the decisions have already been made behind closed doors. 
  • The commission finds that cab driver quality is low and that more cabs have to be put on the street. 
  • The crisis ends and is forgotten until the next Mayor looks for a problem to fix that will bring in votes.
Of course none of this trauma has improved the taxi service one bit. How could it? You have to know how a thing works before you can improve it. The only lasting effects have been to create more medallion holders like myself (for which I'm thankful) and reduce the incomes of drivers working bad shifts.

It can't help but be noticed that this current crisis doesn't quite fit the pattern.  Aside from the deeper complexity of the issues, the main difference is Chris Hayashi and her Town Hall meetings where she actually listens to what cab drivers have to say. By doing so, she has accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of being universally liked and respected by a group where half the people hate each others guts.

If nothing else, a more rational set of taxicab rules and regulations should result from this process. But a larger question remains unanswered: Is this just a better dog and pony show?

Ms Hayashi herself has repeatedly said that she "can only make recommendations - the MTA has the final say." And, of course behind the MTA lies the Mayor.

It's entirely possible that, at end of a lengthy process, Newsom will simply issue a press release stating that the Town Hall meetings confirmed whatever plan he thinks will get him the most votes.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The MTA Backs Off

At the April 30th meeting, the MTA backed off from it's attempt to either raise $5 million by imposing a transferability fee of $50,000 a pop or raise $20 million by putting one hundred new cabs on the street. 

The budget projection was officially dropped from $20 million to $15 million but the amount is less important is than the attitude. In the original budget, the MTA was handing out an either/or mandate. In the revised budget, on the other hand, the operative words were "will depend upon", "might be collected" and "if."

In short, the MTA is throwing the ball back to the Chris Hayashi and the Town Hall meetings to come up with a plan that may or may not give the city revenue. The MTA has a "contingency" plan to reduce their budget $15 million if no funds are raised from the taxi industry.

Board member Malcom Hienicke summed up the MTA position by saying that changes in the cab industry  "should be driven by" a need for "reform," not by a need to raise "revenue."

It would appear that San Francisco's cab drivers have won a major victory in their collective desire, one way or another, to decide their own fate.

I don't like using words like "appear" or "seem" but I don't see where I have any choice. This seems such a complete reversal from the MTA position of just nine days earlier that it is hard to know what is really going on. The MTA appears to be an agency with innumerable back doors and endless hush-hush maneuvering. It appears that they have decided that it is not politically wise to be stormed by a host of cab drivers every few weeks.

It also possibly appears that Mayor Newsom might not like the adverse publicity that these same cab drivers would inevitably bring him during his quest to become President.

In sum it would appear that:
  • any plan to put 100 new cabs on the street is dead. No one at the Town Hall meetings, no one inside the taxi industry, is interested in selling medallions that they don't hold or own.
  • any plan to hit up medallion holders for huge fees is unlikely to succeeded. The only group in favor of this is the UTW and they are a distinct minority at the Town Hall Meetings.
So, it would appear that some of us can breath a sign of relief - if the meetings aren't a dog and pony show.