Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has told me and others that he’s looking at embarking on an overhaul of the city’s regulation of taxicabs. That might well extend to scrapping the nine-member commission, which is charged both with setting policy and regulating the industry.
In a piece on his Greater Greater Washington blog Tuesday, David Alpert argued that the commission setup “divorces policy too far from our elected officials” and called for bringing taxi regulation within the executive bureaucracy — perhaps under the transportation or motor vehicles departments.
Meanwhile, Pete Tucker, one of the arrested reporters, strongly argued on NewsChannel 8 earlier this week that the commission needs to be maintained, but that drivers need to be appointed to three seats reserved by law for people who “experience in taxicab industry operations in the District.” Tucker, it should be noted, is an advocate on behalf of drivers in addition to being a reporter. He blames discrimination against the largely immigrant drivers in part for attempts to sideline their voices.
I have a few thoughts to add to this debate:
1. The Taxicab Commission is an odd beast in city government. As I mentioned above, it’s both a deliberative policymaking body and a regulator, overseeing hack inspectors and processing rider complaints. Great power for both functions, at least in recent years, has resided in the commission’s chairman. Contrast this with the city’s liquor regulation apparatus, which has a Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to make policy decisions and hear disputes and licensing requests, but also a Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration to handle the nitty-gritty of regulating the industry, headed by an executive director. They are related but administratively independent, with ABRA participating as a party to ABC cases and proceedings. Perhaps a similar separation of powers would do well for taxi regulation.
2. The argument that there should be three cab drivers on a nine-member Taxicab Commission doesn’t hold a tremendous amount of water. There is nothing in the law that says taxi commission seats have to go specifically to drivers or driver representatives, and the interests of the Taxicab Commission — and the interests of any regulator — ought to be those of the general public, not in the particular interests of the industry its regulating. Just as Pepco doesn’t get a seat on the Public Service Commission and bartenders don’t get seats on the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, there should be no obligation to put taxi drivers on the taxi board. That said, there is an interest in treating drivers fairly in order to create good service for the public.
3. Before embarking on an overhaul, legislators and pundits alike should have some appreciation for why the Taxicab Commission is the way it is. Wells’ staff was kind enough to dig up the Council’s report on the 1985 bill establishing the commission. The DCTC was set up in the main to “abolish fragmented governmental authority over taxicabs,” replacing no fewer than seven different agencies overseeing various parts of the industry. The report mostly contains discussion of that point, but there is a brief but insightful discussion of why a commission construct was preferred:
[T]his legislation is not intended to be unduly punitive in terms of its impact on the industry. It is without doubt intended to facilitate a weeding out of unprofessional and unscrupulous elements in the industry, but is equally intended to facilitate regulatory sensitivity to the problems faced by a public service industry. ... It is also intended to facilitate greater sensitivity to the fragile economics faced by operators and companies in providing service, but is intended to be equally sensitive to the riding public and the interest in maintaining a taxi system accessible in cost to a broad cross-section of the public.
Any attempt to overhaul the DCTC ought to look at how the current setup does or doesn’t meet those standards.
Here’s the full 1985 report: