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Cab drivers want police hackney unit replaced

Say civilian panel should oversee taxis

An association of Boston taxi drivers urged Mayor Thomas M. Menino on Tuesday to abolish the police hackney unit that regulates the industry, and replace it with a civilian commission that treats cabdrivers as employees rather than independent contractors.

The cabdrivers — speaking a day after Menino responded to a Globe Spotlight investigation by ordering an overhaul of the hackney division, part of a sweeping review of the city’s $1 billion taxi industry — said the unit is broken beyond repair.

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“The Boston Police hackney division is a dysfunctional, mismanaged agency that has abetted a systemically corrupt industry that takes earnings away from working drivers and gives them to millionaires,’’ the Boston Taxi Drivers Association’s representative, Donna Blythe-Shaw, said in a news conference in South Boston.

She was joined by drivers who described themselves as victims of a city-sanctioned system that for decades has put the interests of wealthy taxi owners over everyday workers.

At the State House, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo suggested lawmakers may take up the issue of what the mayor called inadequate insurance coverage for taxis. The law now permits taxis to operate with the state minimum bodily injury coverage of $20,000, a fraction of the $1 million that Massport requires of limousines doing business at Logan Airport.

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Four out of five cabs in Massachusetts now operate with the $20,000 minimum.

DeLeo said the Spotlight Team series “uncovered a disturbing underside to an industry that so many rely upon.’’ He said the newspaper identified an issue “potentially requiring legislative action.’’

And, in a separate development, a coalition of drivers and small medallion owners — the Boston Taxi Advisory Group — called for a civilian regulatory commission similar to those in Cambridge and New York City.

“It definitely should not become another Boston School Committee made up of politically connected people appointed by the mayor,’’ the group said in a written statement. “That’s just a different name for the same system that got us into our current mess.’’

Boston’s largest taxi fleet owners would not oppose a civilian commission to replace the hackney unit, depending on how the panel is constituted, their former spokesman and fleet owner Oleg Uritsky told the Globe in December.

Large fleet owners, small medallion owners, and cabdrivers have long been at odds over how the system should be governed, with each wary of ceding too much influence to the others.

“I agree that the industry is ripe for reforms,’’ said Uritsky, who recently sold all of his 21 medallions, or city-issued licenses to operate taxis.

He said fleet owners would favor increasing the number of medallions from 1,825 if the regulatory system were improved.

Blythe-Shaw’s drivers association said the system would be immediately improved by the firing of the city’s chief taxi regulator, Mark Cohen, who has become a lightning rod for cabbies who believe the hackney unit he leads has enabled the economic oppression visited upon a large number of them. Many drivers said they consider him imperious and condescending.

“If the mayor is true to his word about reform and a review of the system, his first act should be to fire Mark Cohen,’’ Blythe-Shaw said. “At that time I think we might believe he is sincere about what he says.’’

Menino and Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis would not comment directly on Monday about Cohen’s future as the civilian director of licensing for the Police Department.

They said the unit’s top uniformed officer is now taking an enhanced role to supervise city-licensed cabs, something Cohen has done since the 1980s.

Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.

The drivers association, which claims 1,200 members, said the city should revoke the licenses — or medallions — of cab company owners who have been found to accept bribes in exchange for the keys to their taxis or who systemically overcharge drivers in violation of city police regulations.

The Globe’s nine-month investigation detailed an industry rife with common payoffs. The newspaper reported Sunday that federal law enforcement authorities have opened a criminal investigation.

Flanked by taxi drivers, the association chief was joined by attorney Shannon E. Liss-Riordan, who has filed a class-action lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court, challenging the independent contractor system, a system in which drivers pay cab owners about $100 plus gas for each 12-hour shift and receive no benefits.

Liss-Riordan said the independent contractor model, known as “panhandling on wheels’’ to some drivers, must be supplanted with a different economic system that would afford drivers health care and other benefits.

She is seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages for cabdrivers from the city and taxi fleet owners for allegedly violating state law that prohibits businesses from charging workers to pay for their jobs.

Liss-Riordan said the city would not tolerate such poor working conditions for others who serve the public.

“It is illegal in Massachusetts to charge an employee for a job,” said Liss-Riordan.

Apart from paying bribes or bogus overcharges, she said, the city’s system forces drivers to “pay $100, $150 to the multimillion-dollar owners of these fleets every day just to get behind the wheel to do their job. That is wrong.”

More than a dozen drivers at the news conference were eager to share stories of what they described as their abysmal experiences in the industry.

Khaled Chaouieche, who has driven a cab in Boston for 14 years, said hackney employees mistreat drivers yet do nothing about out-of-town cabs improperly picking up customers on the city’s streets.

“The mayor can change a lot of things, there’s a lot of reform he can do even before he goes,” Chaouieche said. “The power is in his hands. He should look at us because we are the working forces of the city. We work hard. We have no benefits.”

On Beacon Hill, state Representative Garrett J. Bradley, a Hingham Democrat, since 2007 has filed a bill four times to increase the minimum insurance for taxis.

He said he also wants the Legislature to consider making it easier for people injured by cabs to pursue the broader corporate holdings of taxi cab fleet owners in the hopes of getting compensation.

As the Globe series reported, many fleet owners, including the largest, Edward J. Tutunjian, the owner of 372 taxis, limit their liability by dividing their medallions into numerous small corporations that exist largely on paper.

“I was not aware until I read the series that there was this sort of corporate structure,’’ said Bradley, a lawyer. “I think we should have the ability to make it easier in these situations to pierce that veil.’’

Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe Spotlight Team contributed to this report.
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