Early this year, James Marshall filed a complaint with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s Taxi Administration about rude and negligent service he received from a cabdriver. The agency sent a copy of the complaint to the county sheriff’s licensing division, which can take unspecified action “should the driver receive additional complaints.” Only one problem. The redress took over five and a half months to put in place.
I met recently with Marshall to find out what started it all. He told me that at about 5:30 a.m. on February 5, he called Yellow Cab for a ride from his downtown residence to Lindbergh Field. Yellow Cab in San Diego no longer owns taxicabs, but it operates a radio dispatch service. When Smooth Cab arrived and Marshall began loading his luggage, he noticed “a puddle of water in the bottom of the trunk.” The driver tried to put “newspaper on top of the water,” but Marshall didn’t want his suitcase back there. So the driver put it on the backseat, next to where Marshall would sit.
After getting into the cab, Marshall saw that the flag on the meter had already been dropped and that the meter reading was over three dollars. “I asked why,” said Marshall, “and all the driver said was that the meter was correct. I then told him I would not give him what I had planned to tip when we got to the airport. He said he didn’t need my tip and started to become very rude.”
Marshall said he remained quiet during the ride. When they “arrived curbside at my airline,” the driver dropped the portion of the fare that was “premature” due to the meter having started early. But he made the concession “with another rude remark. I then asked if he was going to help remove my bag from the backseat,” said Marshall. When the driver said no, Marshall pulled out his cell phone and began dialing “the phone number posted in the cab. As soon as the driver saw that, he assisted in putting the bags on the curb.”
From the airport, Marshall followed up by leaving a message on the transit system’s Taxi Administration voicemail, whose number he had seen in the cab. After hearing nothing by February 15, he called Luis Cesena, a “regulatory analyst” at the agency. Cesena said that he had been unable to make out the phone number left in the voicemail but agreed to send Marshall a complaint form. Cesena advised Marshall, however, to first call Smooth Cab’s permit holder, Zeba Jan Enterprises, LLC, the company that leased the cab to the driver Marshall complained about. Perhaps the parties could work out their differences.
Marshall said he called the permit holder twice, but no agreement was reached. Meanwhile, he wondered what had happened to the complaint form he had requested from the Taxi Administration’s Luis Cesena. Marshall told me it took three requests to get it. On April 19, he returned the complaint form, completely filled out, and waited for a response. On June 5, he sent Cesena an email asking when “I will hear back on your investigation.” Cesena responded the same morning: “I’m sorry but from our last conversation I thought you had worked your concerns out directly with the permit holder of the taxicab, so I had filed your documents in our files.” He then promised to send a letter to Zeba Jan Enterprises asking what “action(s) they took on this complaint and allow them to supply the documents they had collected.… Once I get my letter out next week they will have 30 days to respond.” Cesena finished by saying he would then “have ten days to issue a decision/letter to the permit holder and you.”
By this time, Marshall had concluded the worst about the process the Taxi Administration uses to handle complaints. “I don’t want to tell a story about me or even about the taxi driver and owners,” he told me. “It’s all about a faulty complaint response process.”
On June 21, Marshall sent a letter by certified mail to former San Diego city councilman Harry Mathis, now chairman of the Metropolitan Transit System board of directors. “It appears,” wrote Marshall, “that the Taxicab Administration has set in motion a circular process to kill off my complaint (and probably others) through attrition.” That same day, Marshall received an email from the administration’s manager, John Scott, who promised to bring “the permit holder…in to discuss the matter with staff next week.” Finally, on July 24, Scott announced the decision to send Marshall’s complaint to the sheriff’s department to be filed with its licensing division.
According to Rob Schupp, a spokesman for the transit district, 223 complaints about cabdrivers were sent to the Taxi Administration during fiscal year 2012. Some might argue that although good service and civility are important, Marshall’s complaint hardly warranted all the rigmarole that followed. But suppose the Taxi Administration uses a similar process, “faulty” as Marshall depicts it, on a different kind of complaint. Suppose, for instance, that a passenger complains of a cabbie talking on a cell phone while driving (it happens routinely) and driving recklessly downtown. Or about a driver seeming ready to doze off while driving.
Remember the cab that crashed into the Gaslamp’s Stingaree nightclub in February 2011, injuring numerous bystanders? The driver had dozed off before the crash. How long would it have taken the Taxi Administration to act had someone reported the driver dozing at the wheel a few weeks before the crash? It came out later that the agency failed to learn that police had ticketed the driver for several moving violations in the weeks prior to the accident. According to Channel 7 San Diego on February 15, 2011, “MTS told NBC San Diego there are no violations or complaints on record against either the taxi owner or the driver.”
I called the agency’s John Scott to ask if his department would tell a complainant who reported dozing at the wheel to call the permit owner to resolve the problem, the way it had done with James Marshall’s complaint. Scott said he didn’t remember the Marshall case and couldn’t comment on hypotheticals. “It would all depend on the situation,” said Scott. ■