Why the Taxi Commission ran over reform-minded director

Driving a taxicab has always been a dangerous way to make a living. In San Francisco, trying to reform the taxi industry is nearly as risky. Just ask Heidi Machen.

In the early morning hours Wednesday, behind closed doors, the San Francisco Taxi Commission fired Machen, the agency’s executive director, because a majority of its members grew increasingly unhappy with her performance. She tried to enforce therules regarding cab companies and drivers and the way taxi permits are issued — a rarity in an industry that resists new ways of doing business.

In a way, by voting 4-2 to dismiss one of Mayor Gavin Newsom's department heads, the commission’s action was a courageous act, because for most of them, it may have been their last. Almost all of the commissioners’ terms are expired, and Newsom said the pro-industry panel — three of its members hold taxi permits — had been marked as one in need of “dramatic change.”

“It’s definitely hardened my resolve to do things correctly,” Newsom told me Wednesday. “It’s really unfortunate because it’s a victory against reform.”

Machen’s wild ride began in August, when Newsom tapped her to take over the commission he essentially created in a 1998 ballot measure that transferred the cab industry’s regulatory and administrative duties from the Police Commission. In a tale dripping with irony, Machen, then a Newsom aide, was the point person on the initiative.

But Machen’s tenure was rocky from the start, since she began attempting to strictly enforce rules that have long been ignored with a wink and a nod from cab drivers and the companies.

Holding a taxi permit in San Francisco is like clutching a thread of the Golden Fleece — the medallions, as they are called, can be leased out for about $70,000 per year. So cab companies that have “agreements” with medallion owners are loathe to give them up, and the 1,381 permit owners generally try to hold on to them for life, and in many instances try to make sure that the medallions are passed down to family members.

Machen starting going through the books and finding curious things, like the case of Hayward Wong, a medallion holder who hadn’t driven a cab in seven years, even though they are generally required to log at least 800 hours a year. Wong, who testified that his vision was so bad that it was unsafe for him to operate a taxi, nonetheless found a way to drive himself back and forth to Yellow Cab over the years to “oversee the operation of his permit.”

Just last week it surfaced that Yellow Cab has continued to operate the medallion of Carlton Hubble, a veteran taxi driver. It’s probably a good thing that he wasn’t behind the wheel, because as it turns out, poor Mr. Hubble died in March.

But Machen also tried to steer straight on issues regarding the use of limousines as taxis, which the hotels love but is technically illegal. Her stance on that put her directly in the path of Patricia Breslin, a taxi commissioner who just happens to be executive director of the San Francisco Hotel Council.

This is not to say that there weren’t personality issues involved. Machen, a graduate of Hastings law school, is whip-smart, extremely direct and does not suffer fools gladly. She did not court the cab companies’ managers, and many of the commissioners felt she had her own agenda — which did not conform with theirs.

“In the past (with other directors) there was mutual respect and communication and everybody got along,” said Jim Gillespie, president of the San Francisco Taxicab Association, which represents the vast majority of taxicab medallion owners. “But since Heidi came in, all those relationships rapidly deteriorated.”

<p>Machen’s firing took place behind closed doors, so I can’t tell you exactly what happened. Breslin told me she couldn’t comment on it because it’s a personnel issue, and Martin Smith, the commissioner/medallion owner who engineered Machen’s ouster, declined to return my phone calls.

Newsom was steaming Wednesday. After Smith decided to amend the commission’s agenda Friday and add Machen’s “possible employee dismissal” item, staff members from the mayor’s office intervened and were told by commissioners that no action would be taken.

Four commissioners apparently forgot to applythe brakes.

“Heidi was trying to get the house in order,” said Mark Gruberg, spokesman for United Taxicab Workers, a driver advocacy group. “Her offense is that she deigned to fix things up in an industry where (commissioners) would prefer not to see them fixed.”

The commission’s now in for a fix. You can bet your medallions on it.

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

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