Garcia: Cabbie case highlights S.F.’s taxi scene

About the only thing harder than finding a taxi in some parts of San Francisco is uncovering a cabdriver or company that will voluntarily relinquish their operating permit.

Just ask the lawyers now representing William Wieland’s former taxi company. Normally I’d say just ask Mr. Wieland himself, but since he died more than 15 months ago, that’s no longer possible.

But if you want to see a case of how far individuals and taxi companies will go to hold on to the precious “medallions” that allow them to operate a cab in San Francisco, Wieland’s case speaks volumes —especially in light of his extended absence.

Each year, The City’s nearly 1,400 medallion owners must file an a form in person showing that they are still in compliance with the guidelines for the operation of their permits. Wieland failed to do that this year for the simple if undeniably sad reason that he died in May 2006.

The company to which he “leased” his medallion, American Taxi, did not notify the San Francisco Taxicab Commission of Wieland’s fate, though the reality surfaced earlier this year when the medallion’s owner could not fill out his required form because of his, uh, state.

The Taxicab Commission revoked Wieland’s medallion June 26 after he failed to file the form and the agency’s executive director notified American Taxi that it had to return the medallion based on his death. But officials at American Taxi declined and instead filed a claim with the Board of Appeals inferring that Wieland had planned to transfer the medallion to his son — even though for at least 30 years, his son’s name has never been on any document listing him as a co-owner of the permit.

Instead, according to documents filed on behalf of American Taxi officials, there is only Patrick Wieland’s statement that “my father and I had many conversations about the medallion ownership transferring to me upon his death.” It should be noted, however, that because a taxi medallion is not considered property, it cannot be inherited. And it’s not like Wieland’s son had planned to personally use it — he lives thousands of miles away in Canada.

But this is just the latest example of the lengths to which taxi companies and medallion owners will go to clutch a thread of the Golden Fleece.

The medallions can be worth around $70,000 annually to those in their possession — which will explain how the companies aren’t exactly anxious to inform the Taxicab Commission when their owners pass from this world to the next, and will fight as long as possible to not give the medallions up.

Certainly that was the case with medallion holder Jerome Higgins, whose permit was in full operation until recently when it was discovered that Higgins died in June 2006.

Last year, I reported on the case of medallion holder Carlton Hubble, whose permit was being used rather vigorously by Yellow Cab. And it’s agood thing that it was not Hubble who had been behind the wheel while his medallion was being used last summer because the veteran cabdriver had died the previous March.

There was another case that surfaced this year of a driver who couldn’t file his proper permit papers because he had been in jail for more than 12 months.

And of course there is the rather infamous case involving Hayward Wong, who hadn’t driven his cab in more than seven years — failing to meet any of his medallion ownership requirements — for the stated reason that his eyesight was so poor that he couldn’t safely operate a taxi. However, he did testify that he continued to drive down to the taxi company that was leasing his permit so he could oversee the operation of his medallion.

Wong cut a deal with the Taxicab Commission that he would have cataract surgery to correct his vision, and then instead decided to file an appeal saying he had a disability and shouldn’t be punished for it. Now, some 18 months later, Wong’s case is languishing in the courts while his medallion has been working overtime to make money for its owner and the happy cab company that uses it.

Meanwhile, the ghost medallion holders continue to clock miles around San Francisco, driving to and fro under the guise of the once-earthbound owners and their families who apparently know a good deal when they see one. You could call it a glitch in the system or maybe just one of the more colorful ways that commerce takes place in the city by the Bay.

I guess it’s no surprise to anyone that with a limited number of medallions available, the owners would be loath to give them up — in this life or the next.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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