Members of an increasingly controversial panel of the D.C. Taxicab Commission received a sharp rebuke yesterday from D.C. Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), who strongly suggested she would seek to have some commissioners replaced if they do not change course.

Winter, who heads the council's Committee on Public Works, leveled her sharpest criticism at members of the Taxicab Commission's rates and rules panel who this week voted to hold their next meeting in private, following months of stormy public sessions.

"The public is always suspicious unless they know everything is open and above board," Winter told Taxicab Commission Chairman Arrington Dixon during a council hearing on the commission's budget. "I'm going to be very adamant . . . . Your business must be in public."

Winter, whose sentiments were echoed by council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large), added that the 12-member taxi commission "can operate" without the services of the three rates panel members who pushed for the secret meetings over Dixon's objections.

"The mayor can always do reassignments," Winter said. "I have not tried to persuade him up to this point . . . . {But} we need to get the message across . . . . I'm not going to stand for it."

The five-member rates panel, of which Dixon is a member, came under sharp attack in November when three members approved a surcharge on cab fares of 40 cents per ride starting in March, overriding a commission staff proposal that would have raised fares according to the city's zoning system.

The zone proposal was favored by a large segment of the taxi industry, which has not seen a raise in fares for three years. Dixon has asked the D.C. corporation counsel's office for a ruling on the legality of the panel's rate decision. That ruling is still pending.

The panel's internal dispute has pitted three members -- Lucille Johnson, Joseph Becker and John Jessemy -- against Dixon and Yale Lewis, the only commission member who is an active cabdriver.

Johnson, Becker and Jessemy voted for next week's private session. But Johnson yesterday took issue with criticism from Winter and Mason. She said the trio did not intend to regulate in private, but merely "lay the groundwork" for policy in executive "work sessions" that she said do not violate District law requiring public meetings.

"I don't think Mrs. Winter or Mrs. Mason really understand what working meetings entail," Johnson said. "You would be laying the groundwork for policy, which would be presented to the full commission."

Johnson said the private sessions are necessary because public meetings in the past too often have been disrupted. "Truthfully," she said, "it gets to be rather disconcerting when you have people sitting in the room and you try to exchange free communication."