For no apparent reason, St Augustine City Commissioner Leanna S. A. Freeman has taken an interest in the city’s taxi cabs; recently pushing for Assistant City Attorney, Denise C. May, to develop new regulations for these local business owners.
On January 25, 2016, supposedly in the interest of “improving motor vehicle safety”, Freeman found tacit support to send May off on an assignment to inventory the model year and mileage of all taxi cabs operating in the City of St. Augustine.
Freeman was laying the groundwork for a questionable, pre-fabricated taxicab ordinance — not drafted by city legal staff, as you would expect, but rather drafted by a local private law firm retained to advocate for one interested party, SAX Taxi, Inc.; which began in business here in March of last year, and the related company, SAX Shuttle, LLC, which began in business the following month, April 2015.
So far the investigation by Historic City News finds that Freeman’s newfound interest has no basis on evidence of any wrongdoing, or risk to the “health, safety, or general welfare” of passengers, or the general public, which is, after all, the predicate of legitimate government regulation.
At that time, Freeman and her supporters requested certain changes to the “Vehicle for Hire” ordinance with a view towards including limits to vehicle age and mileage as well as to limit smoking. Right away, May found that pursuant to Florida Statute §386.209, regulation of smoking is preempted to the State.
Mayor Nancy Shaver questioned Freeman on her motives since Freeman could not articulate specific incidents that would justify the legal exercise and potential litigation expenses if the body acted on the anecdotal examples proffered during the commission meeting.
A request to Richard Goldman, Executive Director of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau, revealed that they had not received complaints from tourists using any of the many competing taxi cab companies. The City’s own code enforcement department responded to a citizen request for information indicating that they were unaware of records of complaints against local taxis.
Generally speaking, regulations of private commerce are complaint driven. That is to say that an accumulation of verbal, telephone, or in person complaints are received by the city and presented to the city manager, John P. Regan. If he finds them to have merit, Regan will bring them before the city commission for consideration at a future meeting.
That has not been the process here, and clearly, the consideration comes from one company hoping to restrict the operation of his competitors in the marketplace. That is always bad public policy.
James Howard, the owner of the transportation companies, has appeared regularly at commission meetings and takes advantage of every opportunity to shamelessly plug his business during what he must see as three-minute televised public comment “commercial breaks”. He is often followed by one or more, sometimes as many as three or four, of his drivers who feel compelled to ramble for three-minutes of their own about how wonderful SAX Taxi is, what a great job it is to be a driver for SAX Taxi, and any number of other specific and general areas of praise.
Howard has also used his newly acquired political muscle to protest against the latest in communications and technology provided by ride-share companies like UBER and LYFT, who he complains have an unfair competitive advantage over him.
Last month, on March 14, 2016, May presented a proposed ordinance 2016-10 incorporating changes to limit vehicle age to 10-years-old, or less, and vehicle mileage to less than 250,000 miles.
Rightly so, at that time, the commission requested further information as to the potential impact such regulation may have on existing companies operating within the city.
The blow-back from Howard’s competitors was also clear. May reported that her office reached out to all of the transportation companies to offer an opportunity to provide the mileage of each vehicle in their fleet.
“Only 7 companies responded and not all of those responded with complete information,” May told the City Manager and commission. “We were able to gather information on only 24-of-61 vehicles in service, or 39%.”
Some of the responses made to May and her office were reportedly vulgar, and even threatening. It was not clear if those responses could be credited to certain taxi operators who understood that Howard was instigating the inquiries or if there was simply general opposition from private business owners to keep their business affairs private.
Historic City News will continue to explore the relationships between attorney James Whitehouse, St Johns Law Group, attorney-commissioner Leanna Freeman, James Howard and SAX Taxi, Inc. then we will report back.