Advisory subcommittee on taxi medallions: another turn of the churn

A special Advisory subcommittee met for a public hearing Tuesday, October 14, starting at 5:30 pm in the Denny Room at the Health Center. It was assembled by Advisory chair Harry Bohrs to review two articles about taxi medallions filed for the town meeting starting November 18. The subcommittee consists of Advisory members Amy Hummel, Sytske Humphrey, Fred Levitan and Michael Sandman, with Mr. Sandman as chair.

The topic became a renewed controversy when John Harris, a Precinct 8 town meeting member, filed Article 26 for this year’s annual town meeting, proposing to ask the General Court to repeal sections of state laws allowing Brookline to sell taxi medallions: in Chapter 51 of the Acts of 2010 and in Chapter 52 of the Acts of 2012. The town meeting voted to refer his article to a committee to be appointed by the moderator.

Medallions are permanent taxi licenses that are owned as property and can be resold. Like most towns, Brookline has annually renewed licenses. The Transportation Board began to consider a medallion system several years ago. A November, 2008, town meeting voted to ask for state legislation authorizing such a system. It took four years to get satisfactory legislation and two more years to develop plans and regulations. If Mr. Harris had not filed Article 26 or it had been rejected, a medallion system would have been implemented by this past summer.

The moderator’s committee on taxi medallions met over the summer. It consists of Mr. Sandman along with Chad Ellis, a Precinct 12 town meeting member, Jeffrey Kushner, a Brookline resident, and Joshua Safer, a Precinct 16 town meeting member and current Transportation Board chair. Thus the moderator’s committee and the Advisory subcommittee share one member, and both are being steered toward Transportation Board viewpoints.

Mr. Harris refiled the article seeking repeal of taxi medallions, now Article 15 for the fall town meeting. Like all business coming before a town meeting, it will be reviewed by the Advisory Committee, who first send it to a subcommittee. Mr. Sandman and Mr. Levitan of the subcommittee are former Transportation Board members.

David Lescohier, a Precinct 11 town meeting member, filed Article 16 for this fall’s town meeting, proposing a resolution on how Brookline should handle taxi issues. Oddly, it takes no direct position on taxi medallions. Instead, it supports “actions to enhance driver retention and recruitment” and says Brookline should “increase staffing devoted to taxicab regulation.”

In an explanation filed with his article, Mr. Lescohier complains that plans for taxi medallions approved by the Board of Selectmen have “practically earmarked medallion sales only to established companies,” ignoring “disgraceful, deteriorating working conditions” for taxi drivers and providing no “realistic opportunity for [them to become]…owners” of medallions.

At a public hearing last July, several taxi drivers spoke in favor of a medallion system that could allow them to become medallion owners. The owner and manager of Bay State Taxi, Brookline’s largest service, said he had a program ready to go that would finance medallion purchases by Bay State drivers, if they were sold to the drivers at reasonable prices. Mr. Lescohier denounced current medallion plans at the hearing, saying they focused on maximizing town revenues, “chasing the fantasy of windfall dreams.”

Mr. Kushner of the moderator’s committee said the current medallion plan “is not good public policy.” It “raises future costs of operating taxis,” he claimed. From a social perspective, he said, selling medallions “is like using nuclear weapons to kill ants.” Mr. Ellis was even more blunt, saying, “We’re not going to do medallions.”

Veterans of the Transportation Board would have none of that. Mr. Levitan said he “could not conceive of voting for [Mr. Harris's] article. It has no merit whatever.” Mr. Sandman, apparently unmoved by the social justice arguments, reminded others, “We are a subcommittee of the finance committee.” Ms. Hummel and Ms. Humphrey, who had not followed the long, complicated disputes, sounded uncertain. Ms. Hummel said “value judgments come into play as well,” but she did not “know what other alternatives make sense.”

Capt. Michael Gropman, head of the Brookline police traffic division, spoke in favor of implementing the current medallion plan. “Eleven years…[of] analysis,” he said, have been “destroying the industry…It has been an insult watching [one of the taxi owners] suffer through this…We cannot continue to do this any more…It’s impossible to get a cab on a Saturday night…You folks have to make a decision.”

Mr. Levitan moved to recommend no action on Article 15, seeking to repeal taxi medallions, which won unanimous support. Mr. Sandman moved to recommend approval of Article 16, the resolution, but Ms. Humphrey sought to amend, recommending it be referred to the moderator’s committee. After some discussion, the amendment won unanimously.

The Advisory Committee may or may not support its subcommittee’s approach. In any event, decisive actions that Mr. Ellis, Mr. Kushner and Capt. Gropman urged were not getting through this subcommittee, who recommended yet another turn of the churn.

– Beacon staff, October 15, 2014

Warrant for Special Town Meeting, November 18, 2014, Town of Brookline, MA

Warrant explanations, November 18, 2014, town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA

Brookline taxis: can you afford a “medallion” taxi?, Brookline Beacon, July 20, 2014

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