Over the past 15 months, administrators for San Francisco's Taxicab Commission have made longtime cabbie Jacob Brettholz public enemy number one. He has had his cab permit revoked for life, and the commission's former executive director claims to have spent $100,000 to protect city employees from the irascible DeSoto driver. But is the 61-year-old really that big a threat? His defenders — including a former commissioner — say no.
Brettholz' feud with the city started in December 2006, when the commission's newly hired deputy director, Jordanna Thigpen, was conducting a field audit. She was posted at Caffe Mono on Geary Blvd., from where she called various cab companies to test driver response times. Brettholz was one of the unsuspecting cabbies who got a test call. When he arrived at the cafe, Thigpen told him she worked for the Taxicab Commission and offered him five dollars, which all drivers received as a courtesy for their time.
Brettholz demanded to see Thigpen's identification, and when she refused to produce any, he suspected a scam and became angry. The argument carried on into the cafe, where retired DeSoto driver Michael Keenan intervened on behalf of Thigpen, who was apparently shaken by the confrontation. "The best I can figure, this is a case of culture shock," Brettholz says of Thigpen's reaction. "I'm a Jew from New York and I'm confrontational. I don't just slink away." Culture shock or not, Brettholz was fired after the incident.
When Brettholz showed up at the commission's Van Ness Ave. office the next day to plead his case with then-executive director Heidi Machen, he was offered a glass of water while he waited. Suddenly, three uniformed police officers arrived to search him and escort him from the building.
On Machen's advice, Thigpen requested a restraining order against Brettholz, even though he never touched her or made threats.
While asking the city attorney to file for a restraining order in Superior Court was probably prudent, the cost to fee-paying cab drivers was exorbitant: $40,000. (At least, that's the figure Machen recently cited, although no one has been able to account for how the money was spent. More on that later.) To put that in perspective, the restraining order against Mayor Gavin Newsom's purple-gloved stalker Han Shin cost $15,919, according to the city attorney's office.
The spending didn't stop there. Machen has publicly professed that she shelled out another $60,000 to fortify the commission's office with security upgrades, and the effort to impose a lifetime ban on Brettholz' San Francisco cab permit. During Brettholz' unsuccessful attempt to have the ban overturned at a Board of Appeals hearing last month, Machen justified the high cost by comparing Brettholz' behavior to one of the most catastrophic chapters in American history. "This event changed the way the Taxi Commission does business not unlike the way 9/11 changed air travel," she told the board.
Brettholz may be boorish, but he's hardly Osama bin Laden. While his actions could be considered alarming, his supporters say he is excitable but harmless. "Is he doggedly persistent about what he perceives to be a social injustice? Yes," says former Taxicab Commissioner Mary McGuire, who has driven a city cab for 29 years. "Is he dangerous? No."
During Brettholz' appeal, Sergeant Ron Reynolds, who is assigned to the taxi detail, claimed that Brettholz had a criminal history "stretching from California to New York," and that he did time for weapons charges. Brettholz admits he was convicted of a gun possession charge in 1989 (for which he says he did no time), but denies any other arrests.
There was also testimony from a police psychiatric liaison, who diagnosed Brettholz as a methamphetamine user after listening to two taped phone messages from the naturally fast-talking cabbie.
McGuire says Machen trumped up the charges against Brettholz to justify the tens of thousands of dollars the commission spent on the incident. The actual dollar figure spent on the Brettholz case is unclear. While Machen, who resigned last month, said the commission ran up a $40,000 legal bill for filing the restraining order, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office says it charged only $10,900. Thigpen says she has been trying to contact Machen to get an accounting of the $40,000, but has been unable to reach her. "For years I've seen commission employees use unsubstantiated claims and hearsay evidence to railroad these drivers," McGuire says. "It's nothing new."
She adds that San Francisco cabbies are among the city's most eccentric and interesting people. "We have a lot of people driving cabs who are like Jacob Brettholz, and if Ms. Thigpen is afraid of them, maybe she should look for another job."
Colorful cabbies should take note: Thigpen is asking the commission to raise its legal budget from $100,000 to $600,000. That kind of dough can pay for a lot of restraining orders.