March 18, 2013

L&S backs new MLS-controlled Taxicab Advisory Committee

By John Q. Duffy

A proposed Taxicab Driver Bill of Rights has been sent back to the newly reformed Taxicab Advisory Committee for debate and possible amendment while a “streamlined” complaints and compliments process at Municipal Licensing and Standards will now go into effect.

A final report on the City’s taxi industry review is expected during the second quarter of this year, said MLS Executive Director Tracey Cook at the February 4 meeting of the City’s Legislation and Licensing Committee.

In addition, the consultant hired to examine various aspects of the industry and make recommendations to Council on reforms, was, as expected, given a short time extension to do more research and complete its work.

To the disappointment of some in the industry, there will be no changes, at least for the time being, to the MLS-proposed mandate, terms of reference and composition of the newly installed Taxicab Advisory Committee.

At L&S, there were repeated, but futile, calls from industry for the new TAC to be sent back to staff for further study and change.

Major concerns were raised by the industry over how the TAC is structured and how it will report its suggestions and findings.

As now established, the TAC will report to and advise only City staff on industry issues. It will not have direct reporting access to councillors, other than through the deputation and lobbying processes that are now available to all Toronto citizens.

Beck Taxi’s Kristine Hubbard also questioned the appointment of a direct competitor to taxis to the committee, the president of Autoshare.

A staff report that in part discusses the TAC states it, “is a program advisory committee that facilitates input and communication between the taxicab industry, the riding public and the City of Toronto.

“In consultation with the City Manager’s Office, and with the taxicab industry, staff determined that a program advisory TAC would be the most effective format for the committee.

“A program advisory committee is a working group of stakeholders that provides advice to a Division Head on issues within the division’s area of responsibility.

“Staff may create program advisory committees as necessary.”

The report further states, “The TAC is not meant to replace other mechanisms for industry stakeholders to engage with the City. Industry stakeholders are still encouraged to depute at the Licensing and Standards Committee and to engage directly with Councillors.”

In response to a question, Cook noted that the TAC is “a form
of input, but not the only form of input.”

There has been no formal taxicab industry advisory body to the City since 2003, when the previous, elected TAC was suspended by then-Mayor David Miller after it became evident that it had become hopelessly dysfunctional, mired in industry politics.

Since the TAC was disbanded, there have been ad hoc meetings and working groups gathered to provide input into various issues as they have arisen.

However, City staff, through the consultation process that was undertaken in 2012, the report says, “heard that stakeholders were interested in becoming more involved with the City on a regular basis and in a formal capacity.”

This new TAC is a response to those wishes, but it is not the response many, if not most, in the industry were looking for.

Many industry members addressing L&S stated the TAC must not have its ideas and recommendations filtered through City staff, but should be able to report directly to L&S.

In a presentation to L&S, MLS Executive Director Tracey Cook said the intent of the new TAC was to provide, “a non-political forum that is issue driven.”

She asserted that the new structure “ensures input from across the industry…to contribute to policy objectives.”

She said its format is similar to that of other advisory groups in the City.

In the first TAC meeting on January 28, where 11 of the 12 members attended, Cook said the group elected a Chair and Vice-Chair, raised a number of issues, and were presented a copy of staff recommendations for a Taxicab Driver Bill of Rights.

But it came out in later deputations that the TAC did not debate and were not allowed to make or recommend changes to that document.

She also discussed the new Complaints and Compliments mechanism being adopted by MLS.

Finally, Cook said the work of the outside consultant hired to examine various aspects of the industry’s “economic metrics” is not yet done. The consultant’s report is expected to be completed and submitted within the week.

She said staff’s final report on the industry review should come before L&S in the second quarter of this year.

In a Briefing note on the TAC prepared for Beck Taxi by former and now retired Manager of Policy for MLS, analyst Rudi Czekalla-Martinez, he states, “Although there is considerable leeway in how advisory bodies are set up, it is in the interest of the taxicab industry to have a more formal and independent body that can make recommendations directly to the City Standing Committees and Council.”

He stated, “From my professional perspective, as a former Manager of Policy and public servant, I find the whole process an affront to the democratic principles of transparency and accountability. And what’s worse is there is every reason to believe that this is just the beginning.”

But City Councillor and L&S member Glenn de Baeremaeker, in his remarks after all deputations to the committee were heard, pointedly reminded the industry that the TAC was a purely advisory body, without any actual decision-making power.

He stated the TAC is there to give advice to City staff, and by extension, to councillors. That advice does not have to be accepted by either staff or by council, he said.

L&S members seemed surprised to learn that the chair of the previous, elected, TAC had the right to sit at the table with councillors as a non-voting member of the committee.

To further weaken any possible input from the industry, the way the new TAC is set up its agenda is totally controlled by the Executive Director of MLS.

In other words, technically, members of the TAC, or other members of the industry, cannot bring independent concerns to the advisory body, or to council.

As well, TAC meetings are not necessarily open to other industry members or to the public.

Czekalla-Martinez recommended that the present “vague” mandate of the TAC be strengthened.

In the staff proposal, the TAC was “established to act in an advisory capacity to the Executive Director, MLS, on taxicab industry related issues.”

He commented, “This final point strips any formal influence that the TAC may otherwise exercise. It makes the TAC strictly answerable to the Executive Director, MLS. Although the TAC cannot enact by-laws or policies on behalf of the City of Toronto, in its advisory capacity it should be recognized as being able to take specific positions on behalf of the industry and make recommendations on that basis.”

He continued that the TAC can only advise City staff, “it has no authority to bring matters forward to the attention of the Licensing and Standards Committee.

In a news release prepared for this meeting, Kristine Hubbard, Beck Taxi Operations Manager, commented, “Members were selected and publicly announced on Friday, January 25. The TAC’s first, closed-door meeting was held on Monday, January 28. Why were we told by staff that the TAC is ‘now or never?’”

Calling on L&S members to send the new TAC’s mandate and terms of reference back to staff for further study and revision, Hubbard said, “The taxi industry has been waiting 15 years for this review – the chance to improve service for the public, and working conditions for drivers. It is crucial that we take the time to get this right, this time.”

To make it easier for the public to bring complaints and compliments about taxi service to the attention of authorities, MLS will use the City’s 311 Toronto phone call and email system.

The 311 system, available 24/7, the staff report says, “is the city’s coordinated access to City services.

Internal changes to the 311 system will see it include an on-line form and “QR code.”

The changes have been included in the system’s current work plan, “within existing time and budget constraints.”

In his remarks to L&S, newly-elected TAC chair Jim Bell, General Manager of Diamond Taxi, said he looked forward to working with the Executive Director and said the group wants to make, “good, balanced decisions.”

To that end, he asked that the Bill of Rights for cab drivers not be adopted as presented by staff, but that it be sent back to the TAC for input, suggesting that with industry input, “a more balanced view will come forward.”

He noted the industry had called for a Driver Bill of Rights during the 1998 Taxi Reforms, but it did not happen.

Now that the document is coming, he said, “It is important we get it right the first time.”

He does anticipate that a revised Bill of Rights will require by-law amendments in some areas.

He commented that he didn’t think L&S wanted to see the industry coming back to make changes, and that as self-employed people, it is difficult and expensive for industry members to attend these meetings and make their views known.

He also said it is one of the goals of the TAC, “to do our best to open up lines of communication.”

He also said there are more than 200 years of combined taxi industry experience on the new TAC, with representatives from all parts of the business.

Although he is a Broker representative and Chair, he is just one vote. He and the group will be pooling their experience and expertise to provide the best advice possible to staff and Council.

Lobbyist John Nunziata, representing Wheelchair Accessible Transportation, and Toronto Paratransit, noted there is no mention at all in the Bill of Rights of service to the disabled, and there are no disabled people appointed to the TAC.

He also alleged there were serious deficiencies in the awarding of TTC Wheel-Trans contracts and said his clients did not want to see some companies get, “an unfair advantage.”

He also alleged that some taxi companies were engaging in activities that are “blatantly illegal” in serving the disabled.

Asafo Addai, affiliated with Billy Bishop Airport Taxi Drivers’ Society, said he was speaking as a “concerned taxi worker.”

Noting that one option examined in the latest review process was the creation of a new type of license, using Standard licenses as the foundation, and gradually converting Ambassador licenses into the new license format. It would be “a harmonization” of the two types of license, said Addai.

He also called for cab drivers not to pay lease or shift fees, but that meter revenues be split between owners and drivers, “eliminating the possibility of gouging shift drivers with escalating rates. This is already being implemented in Australia.”

Sajid Mughal, the past chair of the TAC and President of the iTaxiworkers Association, said the proposed Bill of Rights covers many of the bases to help drivers, “but not all.”

For example, he noted if someone gets sick in a taxi, the driver “is the only one who suffers.”

Also, fare jumpers, those who run away form cabs without paying the fare, are a continuing problem. He suggested drivers be allowed to demand pre-payment of fares.

He said he was disappointed in the new TAC, saying it was “a step backwards, not forwards.”

Mughal said, “In a nutshell, this is a rubber stamp of the Executive Director.”

Ambassador driver Louis Seta had two areas of concern with the proposed Bill of Rights.

First is the requirement that “it is the operators’ responsibility to ensure there is no open alcohol inside the cab. Surely this responsibility should be jointly shared. My experience has been that some passengers smuggle open bottles into the cab either in their purses or coat pockets… It is extremely difficult to refuse an adult fare when alcohol is involved. It can lead to threats and assaults on the driver. Drivers need to have clear direction and support from the City on this issue.”

Second, Seta said, “is the lack of mention of customer’s rights to pay for the fare with either a debit or credit card.”

He called for a common policy as has been enacted in other North American cities, where use of these payment methods is regulated and a user fee is set.

Shift driver Khaled Makik is an appointee to the TAC. He’d like to see drivers get “the maximum mileage” out of the Bill of Rights.

He said, “It just needs some fine tuning.”

About his role on the TAC he said it is, “Only to provide advice to the people making decisions – to get input from people with different backgrounds. This is just a voluntary thing.”

At the end, the committee voted to defer consideration of the Taxicab Driver Bill of Rights for three months to allow for further consultation with industry members and stakeholders and asked MLS to report any changes to the composition of the TAC to L&S in the annual review, advise TAC members on lobbying restrictions and seek advice from TAC or in an Open Forum meeting on health and safety issues faced by cab drivers in this city and report findings to L&S at a future date.

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