CITY HALL — City officials plan to step up their monitoring of taxi cabs that operate in Santa Monica by increasing enforcement and putting new limits on how drivers compete and comport themselves.

As of Feb. 1, responsibility for enforcing taxi cab rules will fall on the shoulders of code enforcement officers rather than the singular police officer who was charged with the task of monitoring all 300 cars and drivers that operate in Santa Monica, city officials told the Daily Press Friday.

The goal is to get more eyes on the street checking for potential violations, said Salvatore Valles, Santa Monica’s taxi franchise coordinator.

“There’s a certain cache that comes with a uniformed officer, but for the kinds of things we’re trying to focus on, like public safety and customer service, more boots on the ground would be helpful,” Valles said.

Code enforcement has beefed up its activities in the city, and will expand into a number of new fields including taxi franchise monitoring, cracking down on illegal garage sales and dealing with hoarders, said Joe Trujillo, code compliance manager for City Hall.

It’s uniquely qualified to take on its new roles by dint of numbers, Trujillo said.

“There are only a few police and we have staff here, including two supervisors and three officers,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be gaining ground and getting them out there. It’s something we haven’t done in the past.”

The compliance officers will perform safety and cleanliness checks of taxis, make sure drivers look clean and treat customers well and don’t throw cigarette butts on the ground around taxi stands on public property.

Also at issue are “bandit” or “gypsy” cabs, cars that do not belong to one of the five franchise companies and come into Santa Monica on the sly to poach business.

Cab drivers and company managers believe that they’re aided by doormen at major hotels or restaurants in the area, who call the out-of-towners for lucrative fares in exchange for bribes, called “cookies.”

When the franchise system went into effect, it became illegal for cab drivers to offer the bribes, and in September the City Council voted to even the playing field by making it illegal for doormen and others to request money.

No one has yet been caught in the act, and one of the first tasks of the code enforcement officers will be to investigate the allegations and conduct sting operations in conjunction with the police to catch bandit cabs and their alleged counterparts, Trujillo said.

Cracking down on the illegal cabbies helps the drivers operating within the system and ensures public safety, said Michael Kalin, general manager of Bell Cab Co., one of the five franchisees.

“The practice infringes on legit companies and the income of drivers who are doing everything right,” Kalin said. “We have to conduct brake maintenance, tire changes, alignments, headlights, et cetera. It’s for the safety of the public and the drivers.”

Code enforcement officers will also be enforcing new rules handed down by City Hall regarding how the taxis can queue at taxi stands, an issue which has proponents and opposition within the taxi franchise community.

Taxi companies try to stack taxi stands in popular places with a lot of foot traffic so that their drivers get the business.

Under the new rules, if there are two cars from the same company at a taxi stand, and a car from another company drives up, one of the two cars already there must leave.

The rule, which prevents cars from the same company from circling around blocks waiting for a spot to open up, was implemented in Beverly Hills first. Three of Santa Monica’s code compliance officers hail from that town.

The rule isn’t fair to drivers and creates a traffic hazard, said Nettabai Ahmed, president of the Independent Taxi Operators Association.

“Put yourself in the driver’s place,” Ahmed said. “You spend an hour on the stand. Your own company car is ahead of you by five minutes. Another car comes, and now you need to move out. That is going to create havoc.”

Ahmed painted a picture of cars being forced out of the taxi stands into oncoming traffic, creating further congestion on already-busy streets like Broadway or Colorado Avenue.

Kalin didn’t take it so harshly.

“Our perspective is that it will be beneficial for Bell Cab,” he said. “The way it’s set up now, if there’s a popular stand, one company can practically monopolize it.”

It’s not fair to other drivers, and it doesn’t give customers a choice, Kalin said.

The officers will face challenges.

Code enforcement officers do not have the same powers as police. They cannot conduct traffic stops or impound cars, which limits their ability to enforce some of the laws regarding bandit cabs.

The effort will require coordination between the new crew and police to make it work smoothly, Valles said.

Cab companies view the switch to code compliance as a good concept, and are willing to work on the details.

“The code enforcement personnel, I know these people, because they work with us,” Ahmed said. “We think this is a positive change.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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