Taxi cabs line up waiting to pick up fares Thursday at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — Since the taxi franchise system took effect on March 1, taxi drivers in Santa Monica have been struggling against competing interests — their desire to get a fare and the necessity of breaking the law to do it.

Paying bribes, called “cookies,” to hotel doormen and other service employees in return for choice fares was an established practice in Santa Monica until the franchise system outlawed it.

However, new rules only banned taxi drivers from paying bribes, not doormen from demanding them, which led drivers to either pay up or jeopardize their livelihoods.

In a series of reforms passed Tuesday, the City Council took the first step to remove that disparity by closing loopholes in the taxi franchise system that punished cabbies for giving bribes but provided no consequences to doormen for accepting them.

“It was not fair or reasonable,” said Salvador Valles, City Hall’s taxi franchise coordinator.

The franchise system regulated the number of cab companies allowed to operate in Santa Monica, delivering exclusive contracts to Taxi! Taxi!, Metro Cab, Bell Cab, Independent Cab and Yellow Cab.

In return, the cabs accepted restrictions and requirements, like city inspections, specific kinds of insurance and participation of the drivers in a drug testing program.

They also accepted fare limits, which prevent cabbies from raising prices on customers.

In the past, drivers could work around cookies by charging more from their patrons, Valles said. With that option gone, the bribes came right out of the drivers’ pockets.

That equated to $5 to $10 depending on the fare, or approximately 10 percent of the cost of the ride.

“A driver is a low-income person,” Valles said. “They are not people who tend to make large annual salaries.”

These kinds of payments put stress on their bottom lines, and undercut one of the goals of the franchise system — making sure that drivers can make a living.

The cost of breaking the law is steep for both cabbies and their parent companies.

A violation can result in a $500 fine for the driver, a $2,500 fine to the company or the revocation of their permit to operate the franchise, Valles said.

“Just the one act alone causes them both to pay,” Valles said.

Santa Monica police have not put a lot of energy into enforcing the lopsided rules, said department spokesman Sgt. Richard Lewis.

“It’s not enforced too much by the police department here because the taxi has to make a living and it’s not fair because there’s no law on the other side,” Lewis said.

After the ordinance takes effect, 30 days after its second reading, police will be able to charge both drivers and doormen that they catch in the act.

Lewis would not disclose the methods used to police the law.

Staff will define the administrative penalties for doormen and others at the Dec. 13 council meeting. They have the discretion to go up to $10,000, Valles said.

In the meantime, staff could choose to charge them with misdemeanors, leading to either six months in jail or a $1,000 fine, Valles said.

Cab drivers are ready to see the rules come online.

“Now it will be a level playing field, and there will not only be sanctions against drivers, but sanctions against the doormen who are making the drivers break the law,” said Sandy Clair, a cab driver who operates in Santa Monica.

Despite the prohibition on offering bribes, the practice is still widespread.

“We know of instances where these kinds of activities are taking place,” Valles said.

Relatively few complaints come from drivers, who fear retribution, but one female customer described the aggressive tactics employed by doormen as “shakedowns.”

The woman demanded that the doorman return the money to the cab driver.

“She was a bit more bold then most, and complained directly to the hotel,” Valles said.

Cab drivers and companies came to the Tuesday meeting to thank council members for taking on the problem.

“By now, you realize that this is not epidemic, it’s pandemic,” said Michael Calin of Bell Cab Tuesday. “All the complaints that you are hearing are correct. We want to thank staff for bringing it to you so fast.”

Several hotels did not return phone calls for comment.

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