Former Mayor Bob Filner put the wheels in motion for the city to take over the taxicab industry and improve oversight. But a proposal by interim mayor Todd Gloria to enter into a long-term contract with current taxi regulator MTS could bring that work to a halt.

Taxi drivers rallied at the Metropolitan Transit System board meeting Thursday. They’re angry the city appears to be backing away from a promise to reform what drivers say are poverty wages and unsafe working conditions.

Under Filner, the City Council agreed to put a stay on any new contract negotiations for a year and spend $100,000 to study whether the city could regulate the taxi industry. That money was never spent and, in November, Gloria initiated a five-year contract with MTS.

In a letter to MTS Chief Executive Officer Paul Jablonski, Gloria says the city’s exploration of the issue “has concluded.”

The MTS executive committee then passed a draft contract last week. Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who sits on the committee, cast the lone opposition vote.

The contract moved to the MTS Board Thursday, where Emerald, who’s also a board member, successfully tabled the final MTS vote until next year. Councilwoman Myrtle Cole seconded the motion.

“The Council and the mayor need to sit down and hash out a few details with regard to the proposed contract and the negotiations and confer with the city attorney just a little while longer,” Emerald said in the meeting.

In his letter to MTS, Gloria says he’d like to draft a contract that will address findings from a series of meetings between taxi drivers and cab company owners this summer. Gloria’s deputy chief of staff, Katie Keach, said he’s not opposed to a shorter contract and that industry reform “should proceed no matter who it’s under.”

In May, taxi drivers who lease their vehicles from cab companies spoke out against what they call exploitation by owners and lax oversight by MTS. A study by San Diego State University and the Center on Policy Initiatives, which advocates for labor, found drivers earn an average of $4.45 an hour after they pay for gas and their car leases. They work an average of 71 hours a week to cover their costs.

MTS currently does not regulate wages and work hours and does not cap lease prices like other major cities.

About 600 cab company owners formed the San Diego Transportation Association to counter claims made by drivers and their union, United Taxi Workers of San Diego. They say the study’s findings are false.

“There’s not a lack of individuals who want to drive taxicabs,” said Michel Anderson, who represents the transportation association. “There’s not a lack because there’s money to be made. Lease drivers are independent contractors and obviously there’s an excellent opportunity to make money.”

Photo by Megan Burks
Photo by Megan Burks

An MTS draft of the proposed contract would keep MTS from weighing in on working conditions. It states MTS will not “be required to regulate the business relationship between taxicab permit holders and their subcontractors/lease drivers” and that “MTS shall not be required to engaged in the following activities: investigating and resolving contract disputes … setting contract terms … investigating and/or adjudicating allegations of retaliation … regulating working hours and/or earnings.”

If passed at MTS, the contract would go to City Council, which could propose changes.

United Taxi Workers representative Sarah Saez said passing a contract that doesn’t regulate dealings between drivers and owners would reinforce a culture of 16-hour workdays, which pose risks to consumers.

“For them to say they refuse to regulate those things, we believe it’s a public safety concern,” Saez said. “So entering into a long-term contract with those provisions, we think it not only affects drivers, it affects the public.”

Anderson said a five-year contract is needed so regulators can address other issues — like competition from new rideshare companies Lyft and Uber.

“We need to get this settled here, because neither MTS or [sic] the city of San Diego will address these other issues until we find out who indeed will be the taxicab administrator.”

MTS will revisit the contract Jan. 16.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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