Taxi drivers say they were prodded to protest regulations
Some local taxi drivers say they were pressured by taxi owners to sign letters to Seattle City Hall protesting new taxi regulations they actually favor.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Some local taxi drivers say they were pressured by taxi owners to sign letters to Seattle City Hall protesting proposed regulations they actually favor.
The proposed rules are intended to benefit drivers by capping the amount owners can charge them for taxi leases.
Taxi owners have vociferously opposed the cap and argue the free market should dictate lease rates. The rules, which also would require taxi owners to buy fuel-efficient cars by 2013 and allow the city to issue more taxi licenses, will be voted on today by the City Council.
After some drivers spoke out in favor of the rules at public hearings, taxi owners launched a letter-writing campaign to convince city officials that most drivers are content with the current system of unregulated leases.
Owners of Seattle-Tacoma International Taxi Association (STITA) cabs distributed form letters late last month that said drivers "have a good working relationship" with owners and oppose the rules. Dozens of the letters were delivered to Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council members.
Representatives of STITA owners said drivers signed voluntarily.
But several STITA drivers said in interviews that the owners pressured them to sign the letters, which they said did not reflect their true opinions. The drivers requested anonymity because they feared retaliation from the owners.
"This is not right. They are being forced to sign," said Bashi Hassan, a driver for other taxi companies who has organized drivers in support of the proposed Seattle cab rules.
A few STITA drivers said in interviews they refused to sign the letters and were not punished.
A STITA owner who helped distribute the letters said no pressure was put on the lease drivers.
"I told everybody, don't force anybody to sign it," said Nirmal Pannu, who co-owns one STITA taxi.
Chris Van Dyk, a lobbyist for taxi owners, said "no driver should be concerned whatsoever about his or her position on the issue, and any owner found to be interfering with any driver's right to free speech would be expelled" from the STITA cab association.
Drivers complain to city
But a group of STITA drivers recently complained to city officials that they were being ordered to sign the letters, said Craig Leisy, the city's chief taxi regulator.
"They were a combination of afraid of losing their leases and livelihood, at the same time angry they were being ordered to sign something they didn't agree with," said Leisy, the city's consumer-affairs manager, who met with the drivers about a week ago.
Leisy said he advised drivers to sign the letters rather than risk losing their jobs but told them he would inform the mayor's office of their complaints.
There are 166 white STITA taxis operating on an exclusive contract with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to pick up passengers at the airport parking garage. The Seattle ordinance would not affect many of them because they are not licensed to pick up passengers in Seattle.
But some STITA owners also own city-licensed cabs, Leisy said, and the city is considering dual licensing, meaning all STITA and other King County-licensed taxis could eventually be governed by city rules.
Leisy said the rules would help protect lease drivers, who typically have little bargaining power when it comes to negotiating lease rates with owners. He said the city has heard drivers' complaints about being forced to pay for costs such as insurance or dispatch fees that should be paid by owners.
Measure expected to pass
Van Dyk, the taxi-owner lobbyist, said the city has offered no proof of such problems. "We've asked the city for data to show this is happening," he said. "They came back with absolutely nothing."
Van Dyk said the taxi owners are typically small-business men who saved up money for years to buy a taxi license. The number of licenses is restricted by the city. There are 667 in the city now, and the proposed ordinance would allow the city to raise that to 850.
Taxi owners typically drive cars themselves for part of the day and then lease the cars for the rest of the day to other drivers. Both drivers and owners consist mainly of immigrants from India or East Africa.
City Councilmember Jean Godden, who sponsored the new taxi rules proposed by Nickels, said she thinks the council will approve the rules today.
Godden said she's heard months of passionate testimony from owners, but said she supports the lease caps to ensure that drivers are not victimized.
"It's important for us that we have a nice, level playing field," she said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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