Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Busting Limos

On Tuesday morning August 30th, I rode along with Taxi Services Investigators Eric Richholt and Charles Castillo as they went hunting for limos engaging in illegal activities. Their main focus was on moving limos out of the white zones around hotels by giving them $90 tickets for parking longer than 10 minutes.

Eric is German American and Charles is from New Mexico and of mixed Mexican and Isleta Pueblo heritage. I mention this contrast because it helps them work well together. Charles has his hair braided down his back to his waist and wears a black leather jacket. He looks more like a drug pusher than a cop. Eric, on the other hand, wears an MTA jacket with his badge on the front.

"We're like Yin and Yang," Charles told me. "Nobody could figure us hanging out but we work great together."

What they want to do is give the tickets to the limo drivers before they have a chance to take off. The usual M.O is for Charles to scope out the limos and write down the information then give it to Eric who makes the bust.

"I do my Pueblo Indian thing," Charles says, "You don't want to spook the deer ... you don't want to spook the fish..." And, indeed, he did his job without the limo drivers ever noticing that they were targets.

Charles and Eric start out most days by checking out the Park 55 and moving on to the Hilton, the Nikko, the Westin and Union Square. On Tuesday, we ended up at the Grand Hyatt.

They gave out a couple of tickets at the Park 55 and the Mason Street side of the Hilton. Then, they pulled a double on the Taylor Street side of the Monaco Hotel.

On the far right side of the frame you can see the Monaco's doorman trying to gesture to a limo driver to leave before Charles (behind the doorman) can give him a ticket. The driver understood the gesture too late and got nailed.

Of course the limo drivers and the doormen collude with each other. Giving out a few tickets has a reverberating effect when the drivers and the doormen begin calling each other and their friends. Tuesday's ticketing turned out great for the cab drivers in front of the Nikko, four of whom were given airports that probably would've gone to limos a month ago.

"All these white zones used to be lined with limos before we started handing out citations," Eric said, "One driver told me that he hadn't had an airport out of a certain hotel in five years. Now almost all the white zones are open" so cab drivers are getting better loads.

Eric ticketed a limo in front of the Clift (See lead photo.) The driver didn't like this very much and argued that the hotel had told him that he could park there.

Eric politely told the limo driver that parking in a white zone was illegal.

The doorman of the Clift (looking in the window of a Yellow Cab) gave the taxi driver an airport while the limo driver yelled expletives after Eric.

I was impressed by the professionalism of both Charles and Eric as they dealt calmly and politely with sometimes angry limo drivers.

Cab drivers, on the other hand, were applauding or shouting words of encouragement to the duo. "The real satisfaction of the job," Eric said,  "is getting thanked by the taxi drivers."

Charles added that both he and Eric come from working class families so they can relate to the problems that drivers have earning a living and putting food on the table. He said that they, "want to help out and go to bat" for the drivers "to help make a level playing field."

We ended up in the parking garage across from the Grand Hyatt spying on the infamous "Big Mike" who is reputed to be the greediest and most arrogant doorman in the city. We watched as Big Mike talked with a limo driver and then pocketed a bill (below) as he walked away.

The limo drove into an alley where the vehicles usually wait until Big Mike signals them. This, by the way, is a tribute to the work of Charles and Eric who have chased the limos off the white zones and forced the doormen into backdoor deals. The usual scenario now, according to Eric, is for Big Mike to give a hand sign to a limo driver if there is an airport and then limo comes around the block to pick it up. But, if there is a short, Big Mike blows his whistle for a taxi.

One consequence of this, Eric told me, is that many cab drivers don't stop when Big Mike whistles because they know the ride has to be a short.

On this day, however, Big Mike has heard about us on the grapevine and knows he's being watched. For a change, he blows his whistle for taxis to pick up the airport rides. There are no limos around.

All in all, I saw about 15 airports being picked up by beaming and delighted cabdrivers during our short tour of the hotels.

Charles and Eric have only been ticketing for five weeks but they've already had a huge effect on the business. So far they've given out 28 white zone violations including the seven they handed out during their time with me. They have also given out three of the $5,000 citations that Chris Hayashi drew up the legislation for and these tickets all were given to people without A-cards driving Long Term leases.

This is a good start but problems remain. For one thing, Eric is fairly sure that hotel managers are getting kickbacks from the doormen. The hotels have been notified that accepting tips from limo and taxi drivers is now criminal conduct but there is a lot of money involved and, just like with tipping at cab company windows, the laws are hard to enforce.

Another problem is that limos are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Taxi Services has no control over them except for where they park. Citations for illegal limos can only be given by the PUC or the police. Fortunately, Charles and Eric have recently contacted the PUC's investigative arm and they have been very co-operative. A PUC investigator has begun working with Taxi Services and has photographed and cited several illegal limousines. The police department apparently has also set up stings for limos playing flags.

The final problem is that the District Attorney's office so far has been reluctant to prosecute. Apparently, they see this as a lot of work for very little gain. Eric and Charles are hoping to show multiple and repeated offenses that the District Attorney would find worth pursuing.

At least progress is being made and we are seeing the signs already.

Charles wanted me emphasize the "appreciation and respect" that he and Eric feel for Deputy Director Chris Hayashi's "leadership, courage and vision" and say that this "motivates them to do better" work.

In fact, Hayashi created the Taxi Investigator civil service classification; recruited, hired and trained the Investigators; got authority from the Board of Supervisors to tow, write parking tickets and create a new misdemeanor against doormen; got permission from the SFMTA Board of Directors for adjustments to penalties; and took numerous other steps before Charles and Eric could hit the streets. 

All in all, Hayashi worked for two years to make these busts happen. She's now hoping to get a few more investigators soon - which would become a much easier and faster task if she became the Director of the Taxi Services Division of the SFMTA.

Eric and Charles

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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

SFMTA Board Okays Meter Increase and 87 New Taxis

The threatened honkathon was a non-event yesterday.

Tariq Mehmood claimed that he called off his taxi strike to give the SFMTA to make changes he liked. But, I think he was really reading the same tea leaves I was. I had lunch in the plaza across from City Hall at 12:30 P.M and, in the half hour I sat eating, only 3 cabs came by looking for a protest.

But on to the business that was.

1. The Meter Increase

The topic for a vote by the SFMTA Board was actually whether or not to increase the flag drop by 40 cents to $3.50. The MTA had already okayed a meter increase of 10 cents for every 1/5th of a mile and 10 cents per minute of waiting time.

The measure was a slam dunk. Not only did the board pass it with a unanimous voice vote but hardly anyone spoke against it. A few people expressed fears that the raise would lose business and others asked for cost of living reviews every couple of years but that was it.

The raise of both the meter and the drop will equal about a 24% increase in the cost of a fare.

2. The second vote was on whether not to put out 50 new Single Operator part-time medallion permits, 25 new medallions to drivers on the List, 2 temporary electric vehicles and to sell 10 new medallions to drivers on the list.

The measure passed 6 to 1, but the ideas of the MTA selling medallions and leasing the  Single Operator Permits proved controversial.

Mark Gruberg  and Barry Korengold both attacked the idea of the SFMTA setting a precedent by selling medallions saying that the organization had a conflict of interest. Possibly - but neither of these speakers addressed the fact that the 10 new medallion would be part of the 60 medallions that the Pilot Plan allows the MTA sell - more than 20 of which have already been sold.

 The 50 Single Operator Permits, on the other, took a lot of flak.

  • Rebecca Lytle of the San Francisco Federal Credit Union and Desoto Cab owner Hansu Kim both experssed fears that allowing the MTA to lease taxis would undermine the value of taxicabs as well as lead to a future takeover of the taxicab business by the MTA.
  • Desoto manager Athan Rebelos thought that the idea of the permits was not sound from a business standpoint. 
  • Medallion holder Christopher Fulkerson expressed fears that the drivers of these vehicles would lose money.
The most entertaining objections, however, were put forth by John Lazar  of Luxor Cab and Jim Gillespie of Yellow Cab. 

First, they tried to delay the measure by claiming a legal technicality that the MTA's attorney noted but thought unimportant.

Then, the owners claimed that they hadn't had time to study the plan for Single Operators and said that the permits should not be put out without PC and N hearings. Gillespie also claimed that the subject hadn't been discussed at Town Hall or TAC meetings.

Tara Housman, John Han and I all pointed out that the measure had been debated at several Town Hall meetings in addition to being debated, voted on and passed by the Taxi Advisory Council, of which Gillespie is a member.

The idea of Lazar and Gillespie asking for PC and N hearing is comic. This dynamic duo has spent much of the last year knocking on back-doors trying to get 500 cabs put on the street WITHOUT PC and N hearings.

President Nolan of the MTA Board said that both PC and N hearing and cost of living meter increases should be done on a regular basis.

John Han (photo) was praised by members of the board for his efforts to make the Single Operator Permits a reality.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Will There Be A ...

A while back, Tariq Mehmood announced a 24 hours strike on August 2nd, but the winds of revolt may have died down. I don't keep up with Mehmood's decrees but, last I heard, the self-proclaimed "powerful and great leader" was thinking about pulling back to the usual ho-hum honkathon at City Hall.

If I'm reading the tea leaves correctly, I think other protest leaders have decided to either follow suit or not protest at all. And, indeed, why should they? The MTA has already compromised or agreed to compromise on most of the driver's concerns.

Plus, it doesn't made a lot of sense to protest on a day when San Francisco's cab drivers almost certainly will be given a 20% raise.

The raise is one of two taxi items on the agenda for the SFMTA Board meeting on Tuesday.

1. A Meter Increase 

of 10 cents for every 1/5th of a mile and 10 cents for every minute of waiting time, which was worked out by drivers at Town Hall meetings, has already been approved by the board.

In addition the board will discuss adding 40 cents to the flag drop thus raising the drop to $3.50.

That there is to be no discussion of a gate increase at this meeting is a good sign for the drivers. Hopefully, this means that the board has wisely decided that there should be no gate increase for the foreseeable future. If so, drivers will get a 20% raise even if credit card fees continue to be passed on by the companies.

2. The Issuance of New Medallions

The plan on the agenda calls for:
  • 50 new single operator part-time taxi permits.
  • 25 new full time permits given to drivers on the list.
  • 10 new full time permits to be sold by the MTA.
  • 2 full-time temporary electric vehicle permits.

The presence of this item is a good sign because it means that the back-door efforts of John Lazar of Luxor Cab and Jim Gillespie of Yellow Cab to kill the item (so that they could flood the city with taxis) failed.

Appointing Edward Reiskin to the position of  Director of Transportation, effective August 15, 2011, will also be on the agenda.

What can also be expected is an hysterical, full-bore, slanderous, misogynistic attack on Deputy Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi by the  Mehmood. I'm sure that Tariq sees this as his last best chance to get rid of the nice lady that he's demonized. In this he'll be backed by a group of misinformed drivers who've never met and don't know Hayahsi, and a few of the more corrupt cab companies who want to continue cheating drivers out of their money.

It would be nice if taxi people who have worked with the Deputy Director and know what a fair, honest and brilliant administrator she has been would speak on her behalf. If you've done this before, please to do it again if you can. Show Director Reiskin the support she really has in the cab community. You owe it to yourselves.

The SFMTA Board meeting will be held at Room 400 City Hall at 1 P.M. Public comment usually takes place fairly soon after the meetings begin.