published Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Flap over taxis: Council should show restraint

Chattanooga City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem
Chattanooga City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem needs to take a deep breath.

On Tuesday, the councilman lost his cool with Chattanooga Transportation Director Blythe Bailey. He threatened Bailey with an effort to defund his position. Hakeem’s actions came because he believes Bailey disrespected him by pointing out that the city could not move forward on Hakeem’s proposal to contract with a private taxi company without first opening a request for proposals to see if the city could get a better deal from any of the dozen or so other cab companies in town.

Last week, Hakeem sent an email inviting Bailey to meet with Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, the City Council and long-time Hakeem acquaintance Millennium Taxi cab owner Tim Duckett to talk about a proposal to partner with Millennium. Hakeem called the proposal a “win-win” for all involved. No other taxi services in Chattanooga were invited to the meeting.

Hakeem’s email said the meeting’s purpose was to discuss whether CARTA and the city should establish a public voucher partnership system with Millennium Taxi as well as an electric taxicab pilot program. The proposal would include the city purchasing 40 taxicabs for Millennium Taxi and providing support services — including insurance and maintenance — to Millennium’s fleet.

Hakeem said the proposal came from Duckett, who has researched other cities which have introduced similar programs that offer taxi services at a reduced price for low-income residents. Duckett says CARTA’s free downtown shuttle hurts taxi services.

Bailey replied that he had reservations: “I believe that naming a specific vendor on the front end of a policy discussion involving a significant financial expenditure may be a violation of purchasing policies and therefore I respectfully decline this meeting.”

Hakeem’s reaction to that was that he had been called a “crook.”

Hardly. CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano, too, pointed out the transportation authority also would have to submit bids for such services and couldn’t agree to a specific taxi service on the front end.

But Hakeem would have none of it, saying he doesn’t need the city’s blessing to move forward with the proposal.

“The council has authority over funding,” he said. “We don’t need the approval of anyone else in government.”

Calm down, councilman. The rest of the council should take a breath, too. The council, all but Chris Anderson, voted Tuesday evening on a Hakeem motion to defer a vote on an unrelated but key initiative with the Transportation Department led by Bailey called Complete Streets. Complete Streets outlines the future of Chattanooga streets with all users in mind — walkers, drivers, cyclists and mass transit. It has nothing to do with taxis.

None of this is to say that the city should not do more to help inner-city residents have more options for transportation, and perhaps vouchers to help pay for electric cabs is one solution. But Bailey is right to want that discussion to be more transparent and inclusive. Clearly the city needs to issue requests for proposals and bids — and do a good deal more study — before officials go to buying taxis for a private company.

In the meantime, the city’s Complete Streets program should not be held hostage to a councilman’s fit of temper. And a city employee’s job should not be publicly threatened by any council person.

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