Michael Bloomberg made his fortune developing and marketing high-tech computer equipment to capture and relay financial data. But you have to wonder how he and his marvelous products would have fared if he'd been dependent on the likes of the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission for approvals.
The taxi commission last week displayed its expertise by bringing New Yorkers a two-day strike by yellow-cab drivers. The walkout was launched in response to the panel's massively bungled effort to install new electronic gadgets and credit-card readers in all of the city's 13,000 medallion taxis. Drivers, many of them Muslims and hailing from South Asia, had spent three years trying to tell the commission that they were deeply distrustful of how the information gathered through its GPS tracking apparatuswhich strangely lacks any navigational abilitywould be used. They also said they resented the 5 percent cost that would be imposed on them for each credit-card transaction.
After cab owners began installing the devices in their taxis this year, drivers noted other problems as well: The gadgets often didn't work. Apparently, there were blackout areas in the city where the credit-card machinery failed to kick in. This resulted in the taxi meters instantly shutting down as well. In the taxi business, a nonworking meter is the equivalent of a "closed" sign hanging in a restaurant window.
The drivers, many of them members of an organization called New York Taxi Workers Alliance, signaled their concerns by testifying at commission hearings and holding large, noisy rallies outside the commission's Rector Street offices.
The response of the nine-member panel was to ignore the bothersome workers and plunge ahead with its project. At meetings this spring, it voted to order all taxi owners to sign contracts with one of the four lucky vendors whose equipment the commission approved.
One of the approved vendors, a startup New Jersey firm, has had no experience in taxis or anything else. Another is a Queens company that already services taxi meters and whose wireless credit-card units were panned when originally introduced. Another firm is co-owned by Ronald Sherman, the head of the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, the group that represents the powerful taxi-fleet owners. When the commission originally said it was going to make the equipment mandatory in all cabs, Sherman complained at a public hearing that it would be too expensive. Then he realized that wouldn't be a problem if he started his own company to provide the units. This he promptly did. Amazingly, his was one of those the commission approved.
The commission's experts never even examined the product of a British company, Cabvision, whose credit-card and wireless-communication units are already working in 1,000 London taxis. The British proposal was especially intriguing because it offered to provide and install the units for free, just as it does in London.
Unfortunately, the Cabvision proposal was rejected after it was deemed to have missed the deadline. Company owners protested that they'd been assured by taxi-commission officials that a one-day delay in transoceanic mail wouldn't be a problem. Then it turned out that the agency's chief contracting officer had opened and read the proposal, even though it is against all the rules to do so once a submission has been rejected for tardiness. Commission officials apologized for the slipup and promised to send the proposal back. When last heard from, the British firm was still waiting for the package.
Also knocked out of the running by the taxi commission was a proposal from an engineer, Richard Thaler, who started the whole idea of introducing modern electronic conveniences to the city's taxis. Thaler's model was the one the taxi commission demonstrated for Mayor Bloomberg back in February 2004. Bloomberg got behind the wheel of Thaler's taxi, fiddled with the gadgets, and then told his aides to "get this done."
At the time, aside from Cabvision, Thaler had the only fully operational model. This didn't stop the taxi commission from rejecting him as well. First it told Thaler that his passenger-information monitor was faulty. Then the commission said that was wrong; someone had miscounted the reviewers' scorecards. But he was still rejected, this time for his "wireless capabilities." Since Thaler's wireless partner was a large telecommunications company called Sprint, he found this puzzling. He appealed, to no avail.
Such are the somewhat faulty procurement methods used by the city's taxi agency. But this kind of performance is in perfect accord with its makeup and past practices.
Although Bloomberg is the second Republican mayor in a row to have vowed to clear out all the political hacks squirreled away in municipal agencies by decades of Democratic patronage, the taxi commission has somehow escaped detection. Like a bug impervious to all known pesticides, the TLC, as it is universally known and loathed, has survived and even flourished.
Today, the panel is composed of political appointees of varying stripes, including a perennial failed candidate, a Democratic Party functionary, a well-connected lobbyist, and the spouse of a high-level elected official. The panel's chairman, who receives $177,220 annually in compensation, got his job after his Brooklyn political club was one of the first Democratic organizations to endorse Rudy Giuliani for mayor.
Even though the commission is responsible for regulating the city's taxicabs, it has somehow never occurred to the City Hall reformers that it might be useful to have a panel member who actually knows what it's like to drive a taxi.
Not that commission membership doesn't have its perks. When the Voice recently tried to ask TLC chairman Matthew Daus what he thought about the massive amount of campaign funds that one of his commissioners, former city councilman Noach Dear, was harvesting from taxi companies, Daus ignored the inquiries. He then had his spokesman relay that he was offended by a reference in the story that he belonged to a Democratic Party clubhouse. "His club, New Era Democrats, is an independent organization," said Allan Fromberg. "It is democratic in name only."
The same could be said for the way Daus conducts commission hearings. In May, as the panel held its final vote on the new technology, members of the taxi workers' alliance rose to testify.
Director Bhairavi Desai, a slight woman who wears traditional Indian saris, pointed out that some of her members had arrived at the morning's meeting after having driven until 4 a.m. "They went home and maybe slept for an hour and came back here," she said. And yet, despite the questions they raised, "every single one of you was completely silent after every taxi worker spoke."
As she spoke, Daus and his commissioners whispered. "The side talking is not appreciated," Desai objected.
"We have been listening to the same thing for three years," responded Daus.
"Exactly, and you have yet to hear us," said Desai. "What is your personal investment in this technology that you refuse to hear us?"
This apparently hit a sensitive spot. "Let me tell you something," Daus shot back. "That is a very inappropriate and loaded statement, and there are laws on the books against defamation. So you better watch what you say. When you make an accusation that anyone here has any type of interest, that's pretty outrageous."
Desai tried to interject that she was questioning his judgment, not his integrity, but Daus interrupted, giving the floor to fellow commissioner Dear, who commenced his own attack.
"All you care about is the cameras," Dear told her. "When I was at the City Council, I watched you. What industry and who is paying you, and how much are you getting paid?" Daus let this go on until Desai pointed out that Dear raised his own election money from the industry. Then the chairman interrupted. "Let's have a little decorum and professionalism," he said.
At this point, we imagine Bloomberg the computer salesman heading for the exit.
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