Commission’s ex-chief blasted

The mounting furor at the Taxi Commission reached a fevered pitch Tuesday night as more than a dozen speakers blasted the commission’s recently ousted director, the manner in which taxi permits are doled out by The City and the people who hold the lucrative permits.

Still others defended Heidi Machen, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s one-time aide who was fired by the Taxi Commission as its executive director on June 28 in a saga that has been termed “Heidi-gate” by some.

“There has been politics and personal vendettas,” cabdriver Barry Taranto said. “There needs to be healing. We need to heal the rift between medallion holders and drivers.”

At the center of the controversy are “medallions,” or permits necessary to drive a cab. Medallions are licensed by the commission and can be rented out for thousands of dollars a month to cab companies and other drivers. There are fewer than 1,400 medallions available in The City, and each comes with a requirement that the medallion holder drive 800 hours a year. Some accuse the medallion holders of trying to skirt the driving requirement.

“It’s disgraceful,” driver Bill Mounsey told the panel. “These medallion holders are coming up here … they’re lazy and don’t want to drive.”

Some said Machen was trying to reform a broken system by trying to strictly uphold the medallion requirements and paid the price.

“Firing Heidi was a step by the medallion holders,” said Thomas George-Williams, a driver. “They act like criminals and overcharge us.”

One driver, Tariq Mehmood, suggested overhauling the entire medallion system. He said the permits should be rotated to different drivers every four years rather than continuing with the current lifelong medallion system.

Some speakers criticized Tristan Bettencourt, an analyst for the commission and a former Machen roommate who is the director of the commission in Machen’s absence. Bettencourt was running Tuesday’s commission meeting.

“I thank those members for firing her,” retired driver Arthur Lembke said. “She hired her roommate … who had a felony conviction and she bailed him out.” Bettencourt was convicted in 1989 of felony robbery, but the conviction was dismissed in 2002.

Two new Taxi Commission members appointed after Machen’s firing, Richard Benjamin and Tom Oneto, attended the commission hearing. A third new member, Malcolm Heinicke, was not present. Newsom said after Machen’s firing that he intended to reinstall her on the commission, and the new commission members could give him the votes to do so, but no such action was taken Tuesday night.

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