The last time I was at a public participation meeting at Centennial Hall, the issue was backyard chickens. Last night’s meeting, however, wasn’t chicken feed. It was about the taxi by-law.
Interestingly enough, at the backyard chicken issue, a preview for the meeting on the taxi and limousine by-law occurred at the end of that evening. You may want to review it here, because it gives some good background information on what was to transpire at this meeting.
This meeting was a long time coming. Council has been aware of the inequities of the situation in the industry for years.
I had not been on council long when someone in the industry came to see me. He had paid $5,000 for the privilege of leasing a plate from an “owner” for the next half year. After driving for a month, he was suddenly summoned to city hall; the “owner” wanted his plate back. There was an agreement, filed with the city clerk’s office, which apparently carried no weight. The “owner” was the person to whom the city had granted the plate; the lessee had no status.
I went to see the licensing manager. I talked to people in the city clerk’s office. Someone from the legal department joined in. I was informed that I didn’t appreciate what I was getting into. Things were a certain way. It wasn’t a good idea to be too proactive on this. The gentleman in question could go to the civil courts if he had a complaint. As far as I know, he didn’t. The licensing manager left abruptly. The city clerk accepted a new job offer. There was a retirement. The licensing manager’s position was relocated to the Building Division.
All this took a great deal of time. So now, nearly four years later, a new by-law was in the making. Its proposed provisions had already gone to council for an initial peak. Community and Neighbourhoods Committee (CNC) had received it and sent it on to council. But before it could get there, councillors’ phones began ringing and their email inboxes were being inundated with concerns from the public.
The limousine crowd, apparently, was very upset that one of the provisions of the proposed by-law would end the practice of “hailing” a limo; bookings would have to be made at least 15 minutes in advance. This would bring it into conformity with nearly, if not all, municipalities in North America.
This was somewhat curious. The matter had received scant attention in the media; in fact, I don’t recall anyone reporting on it. Nonetheless, it apparently reached the ears of the limo-riding public and they let their elected representatives on council know about it. They wanted to be able to hail a limo. It had all the earmarks of an orchestrated lobby.
Whatever. It was effective. When the issue came before council in October, Councillor Paul Hubert moved that the practice of hailing be allowed to continue, Councillor Nancy Branscombe quickly seconded it and, before anybody really figured out what was going on, it passed. Only Usher, VanMeerbergen, Matt Brown, and Henderson voted against it. After a member of the taxi industry complained, CNC passed a motion to have council reconsider its decision, but it failed to get the two-thirds vote needed for a re-consideration.
At the public participation meeting last night, it became quite clear who had orchestrated the lobby on this. There were very few members of the general public who spoke on the matter; I would guess you would have to really beat the bushes to find a dozen people in London outside of the industry who knew what the issues were or who particularly cared about the outcome. Nevertheless, there were a number of presenters who described themselves as “customers” with no industry ties, who talked about the importance of not regulating limos, especially with regard to hailing, because Checker was so wonderful, such excellent service, it was the best. They were sitting cheek by jowl with drivers and owners of Checkers limos who applauded loudly whenever one of their own spoke.
One woman even went so far as to say that she had recently been hospitalized and was about to be released. Then her doctor advised that she would not be released if she had to take a taxi, but a Checker limo was just fine. Her endorsement drew a round of applause and a burst of laughter.
It was all very reminiscent of the drive through public participation meetings that we held some years ago when the hall was filled with Tim Horton’s employees, or the meeting on landlord licensing when property owners stacked the meetings with seniors bussed in from high-rises across the city after (falsely) informing them that their rents would be raised.
In the taxi and limousine by-law meeting staff had made a succinct presentation. Licensing manager Orest Katolyk had put forward a number of proposals: that all vehicles be fitted with front facing cameras as well as the rear-facing ones; that vehicles be no more than two model years old at first licensing and that limos be replaced when they reach six years and taxis when they reach seven; that licenses be issued during the month of the driver’s birth; that there be criminal background checks, checks for Highway Traffic Act violations and health checks; that there be modest fare increases for limos; that new licenses for taxis could not be sold or leased; a new by-law enforcement officer be added; that there be standardized trip sheets. Gone was the issue of “hailing” by limos.
Committee chair Harold Usher was in charge. He seemed to expect the worst, stressing that no one would get more than five minutes to speak and no names of competitors could be mentioned. He would not tolerate slander.
In the presentations that followed there was no hint that anyone wanted to name names. But it was also clear that the competition between Checker and the taxi industry was intense. In fact, spokespersons from Checker spent their time congratulating themselves on how excellent they were, the very best, and they shouldn’t be regulated. The market would take care of things.
The response from the taxi industry was unified: they wanted a clear distinction between limos and taxis. Limos are the "fine dining" of the industry, taxis the chain restaurant, busses the fast food outlets. They were feeling the pressure from limos which were undercutting their prices and hanging out at bars to scoop up their business. One taxi driver, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, pointed out the difference between limos and taxis. He has to deal with “every puke, every robbery, every assault”, he pointed out. It’s the only way he can pay for his investment.
Earlier, Steven Orser had tried to ask what the size of such an investment would be when a presenter mentioned that he had to take out a mortgage on his condo to get a second plate. “We’re not here to talk about that,” Usher reprimanded him. He didn’t get an answer to his question.
But one presenter, who had heard about the meeting through the 6 o’clock news, thought it was a significant issue. He had been a driver many years ago and appreciated the long hours that drivers work. But his biggest concern was the transfer of licences which he described as “speculation in city property” which he felt jeopardized the city’s legal position.
There were other concerns too. The cameras, which had been installed to protect drivers, were being used against them. Police claimed that they couldn’t download the images to deal with claims of assaults on drivers or failures to pay. He wanted to know if they could put the images of people who assaulted them or cheated them on a website to warn other drivers.
Finally, the positions were summed up by the big players in the market: Perry Ferguson of Voyageur Limos (Checker) and Jim Donnelly of Aboutown. Ferguson predictably wanted less regulation. He had “engaged his customers to speak out.” His customers are happy, the owners and drivers get enough money. He offers quality service. “It’s all about choice. All about the customer,” he said piously.
Donnelly has his finger in many pies--taxis, buses, limos, paratransit, accessible cabs. He noted that there are many “customers”; riders, drivers, dispatchers. He preferred a “no hailing rule” for limos like they have everywhere else.
But it was Hasan Savehilaghi, president of London Yellow Taxi who pointed out the real issue. He wanted “a balance of fairness so that no one is abused in it.”
When the presentations concluded, the committee voted to receive the report as requested and have staff review it in the light of all the presentations that had been made. Steven Orser requested the addition of a report exploring the possibility of eliminating the cap on accessible cabs, something that had been recommended several years ago until the industry, namely Jim Donnelly, protested. His suggestion was accepted.
It’s an important addition since it opens up the opportunities for those wishing to own their own cabs. New licences are hard to come by when there is a cap on issuing them.
The revisions will come back to another committee—Public Safety?—in January. There will probably be no shortage of additional phone calls and emails before then, I expect.