Wild taxi ride will end with mayor reinstalling ousted chief

The great taxi revolution in San Francisco ran out of gas this week, leaving the industry exactly where it was a month ago — badly in need of a new direction.

And that’s at the heart of the controversy that has ensnared the Taxi Commission in the past few weeks, a period in which some rebellious permit holders and company managers conspired to oust the agency’s executive director only to see it turn into a grand reversal of fortune.

The palace coup will officially end today when Mayor Gavin Newsom reinstates former taxi chief Heidi Machen, his reform-minded one-time aide who drew the wrath of some industry veterans for what they termed her heavy-handed management style. The rebellious group not only finds itself facing their former chief again, but they now have lost two allies on the commission and have encouraged the mayor to take even more of a hard line on enforcing taxi regulations.

Somehow that wasn’t part of the desired outcome when Machen’s opponents drew up the battle plan last month. But as history has shown, when dealing with The City’s deeply entrenched and distrustful taxi business, things tend to get thrown into reverse.

Anyone who watched the spectacle at the commission hearing this week certainly saw why the divergent interests of drivers, permit owners and cab managers clash so often — and why the road to reform has been so bumpy. Threats of intimidation, conspiracy theories and allegations of misconduct were the order of the day — and that was before things really got heated.

At least six people spoke four times each — about evenly split between those adamantly opposed to Machen and those who support her — and in what could be a first, the commission allowed a phone call to be broadcast from a disgruntled taxi driver while three other people used their public comment time to air a video on the criminal record of Tristan Bettencourt, the agency’s acting director.

Bettencourt, convicted of a felony 15 years ago, had already announced at the hearing that he was leaving the job. But the forces that launched a Web site called “Heidigate’’ a few weeks back were not going without a fight, not after running over Machen just to see her bounce back, Lazarus-like, into the picture.

But rather than prolong the civic sideshow, a word of advice. If some people are so opposed to the rules laid out in the much-criticized Proposition K nearly 30 years ago — guidelines now handled by the Taxi Commission created eight years ago — why not attempt to change the regulations at the ballot?

Machen’s great sin is that she had been trying to enforce the rules on disability exemptions and minimum driving requirements for permit holders — something that industry leaders have balked at pretty much since the first cab meter started running. But if everyone agrees that the guidelines are far from perfect — and that would be an understatement — then the solution would appear obvious even to the most grizzled permit owner.

“Heidi’s point, which I agree with, is that if you don’t like the law, then change it,’’ Mayor Newsom told me Wednesday. “People knowingly took their permits under certain conditions. But there’s been notorious abuses, and I’ve promised and pledged to reform the system.’’

But The City’s 1,381 taxi permits, or “medallions,” are like gold to their owners and the companies that they lease them to, which is why any threat of revocation for not following the rule book drives some people in the industry over the top.

So instead of having the lobbying groups for the permit holders, the drivers and the cab companies veering into one another like bumper cars, perhaps these people might want to consider a route that won’t end with such predictable results.

As it is, the taxi industry in San Francisco looks about as sophisticated as a Ford Pinto these days. As one of the drivers said at the commission hearing Tuesday night, “This industry has been besmirched.’’ And a lot of people have fallen by the wayside due to the petty politics and personal grudges that have marked the proceedings during the past few months.

Commissioner Patricia Breslin, who declined to accept the nomination as the panel’s new president, said at the hearing that “running a commission requires a different set of skills than understanding an industry.’’ And being part of an industry is naturally separate from trying to take over the regulatory process that guides it.

But one thing is clear — there’s nothing like a bunch of cabbies to take you on a wild ride.

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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