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Death and Taxis 

Why can't Hattie Neelon get to a funeral? Well, have you ever tried to get a cab in S.F.?

Wednesday, Aug 16 2000
On the morning of Sunday, July 2, Hattie Neelon dressed for church, as always. Kidney problems have slowed her, but Neelon is still an officer of the Missionary Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and an important part of her life is focused there. So she called a cab, got ready, and waited in her Western Addition home. But the cab never came. Saddened, Neelon, who is 72 years old, went back to bed.

In June, she called a taxi to attend a memorial service for Floydine Cooks. But that taxi never arrived, either. So Neelon couldn't attend the memorial.

"We had worked in church together," recalls Neelon. "That kind of hurt, because I didn't get to say goodbye."

Bad taxi service is a running joke among visitors to San Francisco; transvestite comedienne Dame Edna, for one, quipped about the city's "five-taxi fleet" during her run at Theater on the Square. In these tales, abysmal S.F. taxi service is described like the cold Sunset District fog: a familiar nuisance, inevitable yet benign.

But San Francisco's lousy taxi system, the fruit of a Byzantine regulatory framework born of political patronage, cronyism, and piles upon piles of campaign cash, harms the public more deeply than most people recognize. Taxis are, in fact, a vital segment of the city's transportation system. In combination with mass transit, the proper number of cabs could lessen congestion, reduce the need for car ownership, and generally make the city more livable.

If not for the monied interests at stake, our taxi deficit -- there is an obvious demand for hundreds upon hundreds more cabs -- could be rectified with a pen's stroke. Basically, the city commission that regulates taxis just needs to authorize hundreds upon hundreds of new permits, or medallions, to cab drivers, and thereby put hundreds upon hundreds of additional taxis on the street. But a direct, obvious solution does not appear to be in the cards. Demagoguery does.

On the first Tuesday evening in August, City Hall's Hearing Room 400 was packed with dozens of people from far-flung sections of the city. They had been trucked in to speak in front of the San Francisco Taxi Commission in protest against the lack of taxicabs in San Francisco. Their testimony pushed the meeting past midnight.

It was an odd display, given that there was nothing on the commission's agenda even remotely related to increasing the number of taxis in the city. But a careful survey of the hearing room provided a simple explanation for the show; it was written in the nervous, elusive gaze of Taxi Commission member Chris Dittenhafer, a blond-haired striver considered, in some circles, to be the taxicab companies' man at City Hall.

Dittenhafer had finished off the previous week with an unabashed grab for "soft" political money that was so brazen and unethical as to be astounding, even by San Francisco standards. He had taken thousands of dollars from taxi companies -- which, as a city taxi commissioner, he is entrusted by the public to regulate -- to print a glossy flier that ambiguously called upon voters to "change the outdated laws" governing taxis, and that posited Dittenhafer himself as a champion of neighborhood taxi riders. Dittenhafer just happens to be running this fall for a Board of Supervisors seat in District 6.

Three days later, minutes before the deadline for filing ballot initiatives for the fall election, the city's major cab companies and seven supervisors joined to put a taxi reform measure on the ballot. The measure would change laws regarding taxis in perhaps -- just perhaps -- the very ways that Dittenhafer's flier advocated.

Chris Dittenhafer, described by some as Willie Brown's man in the District 6 race, doesn't come across as the sharpest pencil in the box. He either misunderstands, or pretends to misunderstand, simple questions. His responses are elliptical, but artlessly so. Hi taxi-flier stunt may be the most ham-handed example of machine-politics money-grubbing in recent memory. He brazenly took political money from an industry he is charged with regulating, and brazenly (if indirectly) helped the industry promote an initiative that would make the industry's life easier.

And then he had the brass to present himself as a champion of the people.

Dittenhafer's bold stupidity could be seen as just another example of the city government's habit of populating important posts with rattle-brained patsies. But there is another, much more polished side to this fall's taxicab initiative.

The initiative, a change to 1978's Proposition K, is really an attempt to put taxi medallions in the hands of taxi companies, without accomplishing anything to significantly improve taxi service in the city. In the city's taxi regulation scheme, for the past 22 years only taxi drivers have been able to own medallions, which confer the right to operate a taxi. To make their money, taxi companies have had to "rent" the medallions from the drivers, and then rent them again, to other drivers. The taxi companies have long resented the cost of renting medallions from drivers, and have long sought the ability to own the medallions directly.

Rather than stating that the taxi company-sponsored initiative on this November's ballot is just the latest taxi company attempt to gain the right to hoard permits, the initiative is sneaky. The initiative adds new, extremely vague language to existing taxi law; this new language would allow for an interpretation that could, in turn, allow corporate permits, and higher taxi company profits.

If the taxi initiative is the most obscure, confusing, inconclusive measure on the November ballot -- and it is -- the initiative will almost certainly be backed by the slickest ad campaign of the election season. According to a letter that the DeSoto Cab Co. sent to taxi drivers, nine taxi companies are planning to pay $500,000 to well-connected lobbyists Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners to craft the campaign.

It will likely be a brilliant campaign, backing an initiative that purports to create a taxi riders' bill of rights, when it really just increases the profit potential of a bunch of taxi companies that have shown almost no interest whatever in anything about their customers, save for their customers' money. It's a mean piece of sentiment-milking, money-grabbing fraud, and San Franciscans should vote it down.

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Matt Smith


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