Welcome to London Civic Watch

"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

All hail breaks loose

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.


Barry Wells said...

The biggest licensing mistake the City of London ever made was imposing a "temporary" six-month cap on the number of cab licences in 1970.

Former city clerk and city administrator Reg Cooper freely admitted this to me during a conversation in the mid-1990s. I happen to agree with him.

He was against the cap at the time but council went that route anyway.

You see, there's more effective and more equitable ways to control the number of cabs on the road: More stringent licensing standards can do the trick without the arbitrary licensing cap.

The City of London and all cab drivers have been paying the price ever since the City made the fatal mistake 41 years ago.

The executive-class limos such as Checker came into being as a result of the feudalistic cab industry. People will always find a way to get around an ill-conceived law.

If the City is smart (an onerous proposition) they'll let the limos roll as is.

Anonymous said...

In the interest of fairness...the City of London has designated some parking spaces for taxi's only. I got nipped with a ticket once for parking in one in front of the former city hall on Dundas and Wellington. I paid it without complaint and it did serve as a deterent to me committing that offense again.
I think if the public are permitted to hail a taxi then those parking spots should be designated for limo's.
There should be designated limo parking near all hospitals, urgent care centers and long-term care facilities. Limo drivers should have a Police Records Check and Vulnerable Position Screening.

Taxi's should be allowed to fill-up their tanks without having to pay the hidden taxes, sort of like farmers, and expected to cruise with their taxi light on if they are available for hailing and not hogging the pickup and drop off roundabouts in front of hospitals, via rail and the greyhound stations.

Isn't that what hailing is, flagging down a moving vehicle. What's the point of regulating hailing if taxi's aren't cruising and how's someone supposed to book a limo if they aren't at home or don't have a phone?

Isn't the point of all this political interference into the public transportation idustry supposed to be to ensure the public are receiving safe reliable service?

Employees of City Hall need to get their ducks in a row and their priorities straight. First and formost if you're working at city hall, getting paid from the publics tax dollars you are a public servant. We are your master. You serve us, not the owners and operators of taxis and limo's.
This fiasco in the taxi/limo industry has been going on for years and years. It's not a very complicated issue if some practical commonsence is applied. They fact that the debating, discussion and lobbying persists makes me wonder if someones palm isn't getting greased undertable.

If cityhall can't resolve this conflict they should bow out and let free enterprise determine the outcome...and focus on your own fleet of city works vehicles, like the snowplow operators who are due any day now, to rip up our lawns, bury our firehydrants and clog our driveways with frozen toxic sludge.

Oliver Hobson said...

Regardless of how or who created the mess that's the taxi and limousine industry, it's council's job to get on and clear it up.

Every year that they fail to deal with it represents another year where, usually newer Canadians, are brutally exploited economically.

It's pretty depressing to think that one guy tossing a banana skin on a hockey rink floor can garner international attention, yet the daily exploitation and abuse of non plate holding black drivers in London, goes unremarked.

Where's Harold Usher when you need him?

Sipping cocktails talking about banana skins?

Barry Wells said...

The problem is, once a municipality has put a cap on cab plates in place and has allowed them to be transferred to the highest bidder for decades, you have many individuals who have paid big bucks for a cab plate ~ often new Canadians who have spent every dime they could lay their hands on to buy a cab plate or plates.

At this stage of the game, a municipal regulator's options are limited regarding reforming the licensing by-law due to the likelihood of costly legal action by plate owners and also the matter of ethics of destroying these inflated plate values.

While technically the plates remain the property of the municipality, transferability or the ability to sell something s one of the hallmarks of ownership.

There's been several court cases in this regard with the courts putting the municipality on the hook for compensation to cab plate holders when the regulator has either taken away the right to transfer plates that were previously transferrable or devalued plates by issuing many new ones.

BOTTOM LINE: Not much is expected to change in the cab industry until more drivers wake up and realize that there's no cap on executive-class limo plates locally (they can simply go and get their own and do "taxi work"), so why are they leasing or purchasing taxi-plates for huge sums?