Get taxi problems under control

After operating in relative secrecy, the Taxi Commission this week made a big noise when it fired its executive director in the middle of the night. The reverbations of that ouster should persuade city officials to keep a much closer eye on the way The City regulates a key industry that affects tourists and locals alike.

The firing of Heidi Machen, a former aide to then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom who was then appointed by Newsom as mayor to the panel he essentially created, was either the result of a personality conflict or the need to do away with a person whose reformist ideas threatened industry finances.

Some commissioners said Machen was too abrasive and unwilling to gradually build consensus among commissioners and stakeholders. Others said Machen’s focus on making sure the taxi-permitting process was properly regulated was stepping on influential toes.

Either way, Machen’s ouster may well have been hastened by the lame-duck nature of the commission, whose members were all working on expired terms. Newsom, despite having shown close interest in taxi issues as a supervisor, had not appointed anyone to the commission, and itsmembers had little loyalty to him.

Political intrigue aside, anecdotal evidence suggests that the commission’s main work — monitoring the system of regulating taxi permits, or “medallions” — is rife with sloppiness. Stories abound of drivers not meeting the hourly driving requirements but still keeping the medallions and profiting from them by leasing them to other drivers or companies.

Meanwhile, thousands of drivers languish on waiting lists to get a chance at the lucrative medallions, but less than 50 become available each year. The low number is mainly because there is little incentive for current medallion-holders to give up their meal tickets, and plenty of incentive to bend the rules and hang on to the medallions even if, by law, they should be turned over.

The Board of Supervisors should appoint the city controller to closely examine the workings of the Taxi Commission, with an eye toward determining whether its oversight of the permitting process is adequate to the task. The commission has operated for too long practically unmonitored, and the unusual actions this week are a direct result.

Meanwhile, the mayor should immediately create a new commission, either by naming new members or re-appointing some of the current ones. Newsom is well-versed in issues surrounding taxi service in San Francisco, and he should look for members whose background and experience will allow for a balanced approach to taxi issues, representing the viewpoints of cab companies, drivers, the tourist industry, neighborhood groups and others.

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