Friday, August 19, 2011

We Need A Division

One of the first things that I think new Executive Director Ed Reiskin should do for the cab industry is return Taxi Services back to a full Division. 
In 1998 the voters passed Proposition D which elevated the taxi industry to an independent Commission [

 According to the voter guide, the reason for doing so was to create a dedicated group of knowledgable stakeholders and a forum where all elements of the industry, especially drivers, would have a voice.  For all its faults, for ten years the Taxi Commission provided this oversight by mostly people who knew and understood the business.
When the Taxi Commission came to the SFMTA in March 2009, the position of Executive Director of the Taxi Commission, which reported directly to the Mayor, became a Director of the Division of Taxis and Accessible Services, combining the former Taxi Commission staff with the staff of Accessible Services, which works with the taxi industry through the Paratransit program.   The Director of Taxis and Accessible Services Christiane Hayashi reported directly to Executive Director Nathaniel Ford.
I can’t pretend to get inside the mind (nor would I want to) of Nat Ford, so I can only speculate on the reason why he demoted Taxi Services, but it appears that he was punishing Hayashi for doing the job that she was hired to do - help the taxi business reform itself. Although Ford spoke large about wanting input from people in the taxi industry, it was always clear that what he really wanted was to implement the agenda of Mayor Newsom and his man on the MTA Board, Malcolm Heinicke, on a plan to rape the taxi industry.

We were told that we could make suggestions or tweak the plan but, in one form or another, that it was to be the future. We tweaked it all right. We ripped it to shreds and blew it to bits. After two or three Town Hall meetings, Ford relented and allowed Hayashi to get input from taxicab people again and we came up with a plan that everyone could live with.

These Town Hall Meetings created a culture of transparency, openness and respect where everyone within the taxi industry was allowed to express and develop their ideas on how the taxi business should be improved. This led to a consensus that resulted in the Pilot Plan which was put together primarily by cab drivers and is a model of how an industry can come together to reform itself.

Hayashi tried to institutionalize the openness and transparency of the Town Hall Meetings by setting up a Taxi Advisory Council (TAC) where taxi issues could be discussed and voted on with the results given in the form of advice to the MTA Board. She also started to set a up processes whereby questions like “should there be a meter increase?” or “should we put more cabs on the street?” could be rationally studied and answered by experts with some degree of scientific method.

Nonetheless, the demotion of Taxi Services has caused confusion in leadership that has led to an undermining of Deputy Director Hayashi's authority. Taxi Services sometimes has been under the wing of Debra Johnson in the "Administration" division of the SFMTA (along with Human Resources, Equal Opportunity Contracting, Marketing and Customer Service et al) and sometimes under the "Finance Division" headed by Sonali Bose. These are two talented and intelligent women who lack the knowledge to make informed decisions about the taxicab business but still are making them. 

This situation has led to various people going around Hayashi to knock on as many backdoors as they can find. Although both Jim Gillespie of Yellow Cab and John Lazar of Luxor Cab belong to the TAC,  they were the first to breach the sense of community practiced in the Town Hall and council meetings. 

The two taxicab presidents set (I think) a precedent by going around TAC and Deputy Director Hayashi to take their case directly to individual SFMTA Board members and her supervisors, Nat Ford, Sonali Bose and Debra Johnson. They also knocked on as many City Hall back doors as they could find. In July the Big Three (Yellow Luxor and DeSoto) met with the Mayor, Supervisor Weiner, members of the SFMTA Board and Nat Ford. Lazar and Gillespie used the opportunity to insist that 500 new taxi medallions be issued immediately without any supply and demand studies. 
Now that the path above and behind Hayashi to her bosses, the Mayor and the Supervisors is well-worn by taxi companies, other individuals who claim to represent all drivers are pushing for agreements to be made that are in their own personal financial and political interests. Decisions, indeed, are seemingly being made by everyone except Hayashi based on these back room meetings.
The result has been a chaotic process that adds to the anxiety of all concerned.  After Tariq Mehmood and his followers stormed the SFMTA Board meeting in April to protest against credit card fees, decisions made by Executive Director Ford further undermined Hayashi’s position and, I believe, led to an intensification of the protests. Despite the fact that cab drivers have protested credit card charges in every city where they have been forced pay these fees, Ford and the Board acted as if Hayashi was personally responsible for all the noise. 
The MTA's panic reaction resulted in a series of Town Hall Meetings to revisit all credit card policies - not a bad thing in itself.  However, instead of leaving the Deputy Director in control as she had been in the past, Ford assigned two people to observe and take notes on the meeting.  Ostensibly there to make certain that everyone’s ideas were noted, Mehmood understood this to mean that Hayashi no longer had the trust of the agency and acted accordingly. 

Tariq tried to take over every meeting he attended and loudly insulted Hayashi with a series of personal attacks and character assassinations.  At one point, when Mehmood was making criminal accusations against another member of the taxi industry who was not there to defend himself, Hayashi in desperation asked the notetaker to act as referree hoping that the notetaker would also instruct Mehmood to stop such personal attacks. Instead the notetaker apologized to Mehmood for Hayashi, saying that it had been a long day and everyone was tired and grumpy.  Tariq continued to insult Hayashi with a deranged, incomprehensible conspiracy theory for another thirty minutes while the notetaker took careful notes. Thus, one of the low points in my experience of Western Civilization.
I could go on into greater detail but I’ll simply summarize. 

The politics of community, rational compromise and mutual respect that Hayashi helped initiate and foster has been almost totally undermined. It’s been replaced by a culture of secret soirĂ©es and argument by intimidation. Cab drivers don't believe much in transparency any longer because there isn’t much to be found. Any person who doesn’t like a decision by TAC or Hayashi immediately goes knocking on back doors and finds most of them open. SFMTA Board meetings are now devoted almost entirely to cab driver’s angst and Tariq Mehmood, who is considered to be a crackpot by most taxi people, has apparently got the SFMTA running around marching in step to his screwball demands.
There is a simple solution to all of this. Turn Taxi Services back into a Division and put Director Christiane Hayashi back in charge. She is by far the most knowledgeable and creative person in the cab business and, noise and insults aside, she has the support of the vast majority of San Francisco’s taxi people.

1 comment:

  1. Is there a way that we can contact the inspectors to show them the amount of guys running around with Black town cars with just regular passenger plates? On a Friday or Saturday night, they are all over the triangle and the marina. You even see them downtown in the union square area and by the mall. any suggestions?
    david Luxor 840