After four months of meetings and little action, D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Arrington Dixon angrily suspended the operations of a crucial rates panel and accused several commissioners of foot-dragging on a proposal to consider an increase in cab fares.
"We are misusing public money," Dixon said to the startled commission members as he abruptly adjourned yesterday's meeting of the five-member rates and rules panel. "There will be no more pay for this panel until we are ready to vote."
Dixon's unusual move temporarily puts the rates and rules panel -- four of whose members receive $150 a meeting -- out of business unless members want to meet without being paid. In more than 15 meetings, consistent bickering has stalled the panel, which is responsible for setting rates for taxi service, establishing criteria for vehicle licensing, insuring driver and passenger safety and determining penalties for violations.
The commission's other subcommittee, the eight-member adjudication panel is responsible for hearing complaints against cabdrivers by residents and police.
Commissioner Lucille Johnson, who has maintained that the panel has not been given enough information on which to determine a proper rate increase, shouted at Dixon as he ended the meeting, "You made no effort to take a vote."
She said later that she thought Dixon's actions were "grossly unfair and illegal."
Dixon has tried unsuccessfully since May, when the commission was formed to improve the city's deteriorating cab service, to get an interim rate increase. Cabdrivers complain that they haven't had a rate increase in more than two years and cannot afford to maintain their vehicles, run their air conditioners or pay for the use of a radio-dispatcher system.
On yesterday's agenda was the review of the draft order for an interim rate increase, which called for a 30-cent increase for traveling in one zone and a maximum increase of $1.25 for crossing all eight zones.
After the truncated meeting, Commissioner Joseph Becker said he could not endorse the interim increase proposal because "to pass the proposal is to pass the increase."
Commissioner Yale P. Lewis, the only member who is a full-time cabdriver, said he supported Dixon's actions.
"I am with him 100 percent," he said. "We don't need any more study time. We need to put this proposal before the public."
Becker, along with Johnson and Commissioner John Jessamy, have made repeated requests for detailed information on the business expenses and income of cabdrivers. Cabdrivers, most of whom work for themselves, are reluctant to disclose that information.
The commission's staff economist Scott Moore said the rate increase proposal was based on earlier studies done by the Public Service Commission, which the taxicab commission has replaced, and on information submitted by several cab companies as well as the cabdriver's union.
He concluded that city hackers now are paid an hourly income of $7.80, compared with the $9.52 the federal government has determined to be the average wage for workers in metropolitan areas. The proposed increases would cover the difference.
Some cabdrivers and company owners at the meeting said that the increase was too small but that they would be glad to see any increase. Most supported Dixon's actions.
"The panel members just sit there week after week," said Ajab Abdus-Samad, the spokesman for the union, which represents about 400 of the estimated 12,000 cabdrivers. "Chairman Dixon did what he had to do. I hope this brings on some action."
Dixon said he intends to bring the interim rate increase before the full commission on Tuesday as well as a proposal to prohibit the use of any cabs more than eight years old.
"I wasn't asking for a vote today but rather a consensus," he said. "I believe the full commission will vote for the proposal. The panel has to realize they are not in tune with either the full commission or the public."