By Savannah Blackwell
A gang of thugs squared off against a reformer last night at City Hall, and the thugs won.
Yellow Cab Co., the nefarious outfit that holds roughly one-third of the highly coveted taxi-driving permits issued in the city demanded the head of Heidi Machen, the Executive Director of the Taxi Commission and co-author of the 1998 voter initiative aimed at leveling the playing field in the hopelessly corrupt cab industry.
Since she was hired by the commission last July, Machen set out to enforce the city law requiring holders of taxi permits (called "medallions") to actually drive cabs for at least 800 hours each year.
That immediately put her at odds with managers at Yellow Cab, the company that for decades has grown plump by hording medallions – at the expense of long lists of drivers waiting to get a chance to own their own permits.
Despite a long line of folks who testified to Machen's integrity and high professional standards at the commission’s hearing last night at City Hall, the panel voted 4-2 in a 3-hour closed session that went until 2 a.m. this morning to dump her – effective immediately.
There's some history to this issue: In 1978, Supervisor Quentin Kopp backed a successful voter initiative that instituted the driving requirement for medallion holders.
But the measure was never enforced effectively, largely because responsibility for oversight was in the hands of the police commission, which had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with the matter. Moreover, cops involved in the detail often got in on the take.
So in 1998, freshman Supervisor Gavin Newsom put on the ballot a successful initiative Machen, his legislative aide, helped write that established an independent taxi commission to regulate the industry.
Still, the law went enforced, because former Mayor Willie Brown saw to it that his supporters in the cab industry did not have to comply. Brown took care of his campaign donors by getting the commission to hire a director who did little to nothing on the issue. (As one Yellow Cab representative tellingly noted last night, "She kept us happy.")
After Machen started sending auditors around to check up on the driving records of medallion holders, a manager at Yellow Cab Co. hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her. When the search proved fruitless, the investigator checked out Tristan Bettencourt, one of Machen's staffers.
Bettencourt drove a cab more than a decade ago. During that time, he found himself accused of a crime he did not commit, in this case burglarizing the home of a fare. Bettencourt had no money to pay a high-powered attorney. His public defender advised him to enter plea bargain. Later, when Bettencourt had more resources, he was able to get the charges reduced to a misdemeanor and finally dismissed in 2002.
Yellow Cab's investigator pulled an old court record on Bettencourt and for months shopped it around to commissioners and tried (in vain so far) to get some members of the press interested.
But getting the ears of several of the commissioners wasn't too hard. Martin Smith, who the group elected president after the recent death of Arthur Jackson, works for Yellow Cab. Commissioner Patricia Breslin represents the Hotel Council and is in cahoots with Smith's employer. Both have stated publicly they don’t believe the law requires medallion holders to actually drive cabs – despite frequent admonishment from the city attorney that they are wrong. Two of the other commissioners own medallions, and one – Mary Maguire – has told staffers she doesn’t want the law enforced for personal reasons. The only clean votes on the panel are those of Paul Gillespie and Min Paek. And they stood up for Machen.
Legally, the commission could not even consider the issue of Bettencourt's record, though that did not stop cab co. slime from raising the issue at last night's hearing; one even likened Machen's hiring of Bettencourt to the Catholic Church deciding to hire "a pedophile priest."
What the commissioners clearly pandered to were the cranky gripes of medallion holders and cab co. reps, who whined that Machen and her auditing staff were unfairly "targeting" them and "making them feel uncomfortable."
Meanwhile, representatives of United Taxicab Workers like Mark Gruberg praised Machen for being "on the cutting edge of moving this commission forward."
The bottom line is that buck really stops on the issue with Mayor Newsom. The commissioners serve at his discretion. Most of their terms have expired, including those of Breslin and Smith. If Newsom is serious about city law he helped pass, then he should dump the commissioners in league with the cab companies and recommend that his new appointments (who should not all be medallion-holders) re-hire Machen. Otherwise, the mayor doesn't deserve the credit even his political opponents have granted him for wading into this messy issue. And he proves himself beholden once and for all to powerful special interests in the same vein of his predecessor.