Montgomery County's former taxi inspector isn't going away quietly.
After resigning his post on May 31, John Hoffmann said in a recent interview that County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's administration hasn't done enough to improve taxi service in the county.
Hoffmann said Duncan (D) has been far too timid in dealing with the county's dominant taxi provider, Barwood Inc., and its owner, Lee Barnes, a former member of the Taxicab Services Advisory Committee.
"Everything is driven by Barwood in this county," said Hoffmann, who stepped down after he was reprimanded for what county officials say were overly aggressive enforcement tactics.
Hoffmann, who was hired in 2000 to ensure that cab drivers were adhering to the county's taxi code, said his superiors often intervened in his investigations to try to protect Barwood's interests. He pinned much of the blame on his direct boss, Nancy Kutz, the county's manager of special transportation and taxicab regulation.
"She would tell me to go easy on Barwood," Hoffmann said. "When we started enforcement [in 2000], it was always that 'Barwood never did this before. We have to go easy on them.' "
Kutz declined to comment. But county spokeswoman Esther Bowring denied Hoffmann's claims.
"I think the county is aggressively working to ensure cab companies are doing what they should be doing," Bowring said. "The new legislation is going to give us the new tools to aggressively enforce against companies and drivers who are not doing what they should be doing."
In early 2004, Duncan submitted a plan to increase the number of cabs doing business in the county to try to break the near-monopoly Barwood had on the market.
Duncan's interest in the issue followed a 2003 Washington Post report that documented how the administration was allowing Barnes, a Duncan campaign contributor, to exert extensive influence over the regulation of the industry.
Barnes served on the Taxicab Services Advisory Committee for 15 years, even though county law allows no member to serve more than two three-year terms. He left the position earlier this year after Duncan declined to reappoint him to a sixth term.
The Post reported that committee minutes showed that Barnes, while on the committee, had used the post to gain a direct hand in shaping the working draft of the taxicab code, writing a provision that will toughen restrictions on airport shuttles and limousines, his chief competitors.
But during the past decade, customer complaints about rude Barwood drivers, late pickups and excessive fares have skyrocketed.
"All these [taxi committee] meetings, it was always like there was a big elephant in the room with Barnes being there. We would never pinpoint Barwood when statistical information was saying it was Barwood," Hoffmann said. "But I don't blame Barwood anymore. I blame the county for refusing to recognize the problem and then not taking action."
The County Council ultimately scaled back Duncan's proposal for reforming taxi service, but the final legislation stiffens standards for response times and opens up the market to additional taxi providers.
Hoffmann says he doesn't have much hope that the new law will improve customer service or increase competition.
"The new law is not doing anything to stop these cabs from not showing up," Hoffmann said.
He said the county is also "dragging its feet" when it comes to enforcing the law.
As part of the legislation, money was allocated to hire a second taxi inspector this year. But Hoffman said a second inspector has yet to be hired. County officials say they plan to begin advertising both the new position, and the job Hoffmann held, this week.
"We are focused on implementing the toughest standards for taxicab cabs in the nation," Bowring said.
"We are committed to increase customer service."
Trachtenberg May Run
The number of potential candidates lining up to replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) as the 8th District representative in Congress -- should he run for the U.S. Senate -- continues to grow.
Duchy Trachtenberg, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women, announced this week that she will be forming an exploratory committee as she considers whether to make the bid if Van Hollen steps aside.
Trachtenberg, co-chair of the Women's Leadership Network of the Maryland Democratic Party, was an adviser to Howard Dean during his 2004 presidential bid. She has hired the Washington-based firm of Fingerhut, Powers, Smith and Associates to serve as a consultant for her exploratory campaign.
"In the past, the voters in the 8th District have confirmed their confidence in progressive leadership by electing and reelecting a strong and effective women's advocate," said Trachtenberg, who lives in North Bethesda. "Over the years, my commitment to these progressive values and to community service has been unwavering."
Trachtenberg's announcement means there could be at least two prominent women running for the 8th District seat. Susan Turnbull, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also has expressed an interest in running if Van Hollen does not seek reelection.
At least a half-dozen men are also considering entering the race if Van Hollen doesn't seek reelection. Van Hollen has said he plans to decide within the next month whether he plans to give up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
GOP Blasts Police Tactics
Maryland Republicans are trying to capitalize on two recent police enforcement actions in Montgomery to highlight their concern for individual liberties.
Over Memorial Day weekend, the Maryland State Police used night-vision equipment to catch 111 motorists on Rockville Pike who weren't wearing seat belts. When Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. found out about it, he ordered the practice stopped. An administration official said it amounted to "Big Brother tactics."
Then, on June 2, the Montgomery County Police Department's Alcohol Enforcement Section got a tip that teenagers were allegedly drinking alcohol at a graduation party in Bethesda.
The unit went to the house and asked the parents hosting the party -- Kathy Phelan and Margaret Engel Adams, the wife of former council member Bruce Adams -- whether it could administer breathalyzer tests to the 80 guests inside.
The parents refused, so police set up roadblocks at the end of the street and began giving the tests to guests as they left the party. None of the teenagers tested positive for alcohol, she said.
Officers then began ticketing vehicles parked outside the Phelans' house, she said, including ones that belonged to neighbors who weren't at her party.
Last week, Tom Reinheimer, chair of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, issued a statement saying the officers' tactics amounted to "harassment and intimidation of law-abiding citizens" and demonstrated "a lack of training, discipline and basic understanding of civil rights."
In an interview on Monday, Reinheimer said Duncan should have spoken out on the issue.
"The message has got to go out that police should not be acting this way," Reinheimer said. "When Ehrlich found out about [the night-vision goggles], he acted quickly and had it stopped, but you don't get that leadership from Duncan when people's rights are being run over."
On Tuesday, county police rescinded the tickets.
David Weaver, a Duncan spokesman, said Reinheimer "had his facts wrong" because Duncan spoke about the issue at a recent press conference and had ordered an investigation into the incident.
Weaver then tried to shift the controversy back onto the GOP.
"It's ironic. The party of Ronald Reagan and law and order is now retreating from traffic safety and alcohol enforcement," Weaver said. "It's an issue when the [Republicans] forget the underlying objective here, which is to stop underage drinking."
Duncan Speaks Up
Duncan, a likely candidate for governor, is stepping up his efforts to speak out on a number of controversial topics, including two issues of importance to the Democratic Party.
On Friday, he sent a letter to County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), urging the council to pass a resolution opposing President Bush's plans for reforming the Social Security system.
"We cannot afford to sit by silently while a system that has supported generations of workers is dismantled and dumped," Duncan wrote.
On Monday, Duncan and council Vice President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) wrote to Kendl P. Philbrick, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, to oppose the Atlanta-based Mirant Corp.'s request for an air pollution permit for its generating station in Dickerson.
"Real leaders make tough decisions and fight for what is right," the letter said. "We believe reducing harmful emissions and making our air cleaner for our children is the right thing to do."