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Ken Garcia: Plenty of blame to go around in Taxi Commission bloodletting

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There’s so much intrigue still swirling around the firing of the San Francisco Taxi Commission's executive director this week that the conspiracy theorists are out in full.

Did Mayor Gavin Newsom want his hand-picked appointment, Heidi Machen, to be fired so he could show just how resistant the taxi industry is to reform? Was it an act of desperation by commissioners who knew that they could be replaced at any time? Or was it payback to a person who tried to promote changes without building consensus among her board and some powerful industry figures?

All those scenarios were presented to me in conversations with taxi drivers, cab company managers and people at City Hall this week after the commission quickly and defiantly acted in closed session to dismiss one of the mayor's department heads — a first for the administration. Although Newsom was clearly angered by the move — mistakenly believing that the turmoil had temporarily subsided — it raises the question of why he allowed the situation to unravel for so long without acting.

Clearly, Newsom was aware of the troubles brewing, since administration officials had been informed by members of The City’s largest taxi association months ago that they were unhappy with Machen and what they viewed as her autocratic management style.

Jim Gillespie, head of the San Francisco Taxicab Association, told me he met with staffers in the mayor’s office and relayed his concerns. Gillespie, who is a senior manager at Yellow Cab, had numerous run-ins with Machen but said he was trying to find a diplomatic way to handle the ongoing struggle.

“We wanted to get more cooperation from her to get some give-and-take on some items,” he told me. “But there was no response from the mayor’s office. They dropped the ball. It could have been handled a lot better. But we were not campaigning to get rid of her. In fact, I don’t support the way things went down. That’s not the way most of us want to conduct business.”

Yet others were actively campaigning for her removal, and they found a willing hand in commission president Martin Smith, the cab companies’ representative on the panel and a holdover appointment from Mayor Willie Brown. According to people I talked to, it was Smith’s belief that Machen was actively encouraging the mayor to replace him and fellow taxi permit holder Mary McGuire on the commission. They viewed that as an act of insubordination — one that culminated in Smith’s demand that Machen’s “performance evaluation” and potential dismissal be slapped on the commission’s agenda at the 11th hour last week.

“People were saying, ‘Look Marty, this is your only chance to get to her before she gets to you,’” said Michael Spain, vice-president of the Permit Holders and Drivers Association. “If I was a sitting commissioner, I know I’d feel uneasy if my executive director was encouraging people to put their names in for consideration with the mayor.”

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the whole sordid affair was why Newsom didn’t act sooner to put in his own commissioners, long after the terms of the current commissioners had expired. It’s not the first time the mayor has delayed far too long in picking his own appointees to an established panel, but since he basically created the Taxi Commission through a ballot measure eight years ago, you might think he would have shown a more active interest.

When he finally replaced McGuire on Thursday and filled the vacancy created by the death of former commission president Arthur Jackson, Newsom was essentially trying to make up for lost time. Newsom said that things had been delayed because his commission secretary was on a leave of absence. But now he’s in a position of directly challenging taxi industry leaders by reappointing Machen — which he has said he’ll do — and facing the prospect of being called vindictive by opponents for his failure to act sooner.

“Clearly there were some personality issues involved, but the fact is Heidi was doing her job,” Newsom said. “The bottom line is that it was not right to do this.”

Meanwhile, the industry reforms that Machen was pushing, ones that Newsom has indicated he wants, are stalled and possibly lost.

“If the mayor had been doing due diligence, this never would have happened,” said Mark Gruberg, spokesman for the United Taxicab Workers, a driver advocacy group that strongly supported Machen. “He knew that there was a problem but he never got around to dealing with it.”

Machen said that listening to the 20 people who testified on her behalf at the hearing this week before the axe fell “was kind of like attending your own funeral.”

Will there be life after death? This is one case where the meter is still running.

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