Taxi inspections finding rocky start

Taxi inspections finding rocky start

March 3rd, 2011 by Pam Sohn in News

Andy O'Dell, recently in the news when 19 Chihuahuas were seized from his sweltering rented trailer, has been driving Chattanooga cabs for about a year with a suspended Tennessee driver's license.

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Inspector Chuck Topping talks Wednesday at Millennium Taxi Service about things he looks for when inspecting taxis. Toppings says that it is important that the taxis be clean and in good working order.

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

Although his case came to light during his court appearances for his dogs, driving without a valid license is not unusual for him. His license has been suspended and reinstated six times in the past seven years, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety.

His last suspension on May 14, 2010, is still in place, according to records from the Department of Safety.

But he is far from being the only local taxi driver with license problems.

New Chattanooga taxi inspector Chuck Topping recently ran license checks on about 75 of the city's 300-plus permitted taxi drivers.

"A good 20 percent, I've had problems with," Topping said. "Either their licenses are suspended or they did not have one at all or they have questionable criminal backgrounds that will have to be taken before the [taxi] board."

On Wednesday, O'Dell blamed the trucking companies that he worked with as a tractor-trailer driver for 20 years for his license suspension.

"A driver turns the tickets [for speeding or traffic offenses] over to the trucking companies," he said. "If the companies don't pay in 15 days, the states go after the driver."

In the past seven years, he's been cited at least twice for speeding, for an accident in Hamilton County and for driving without insurance in both Hamilton and Bradley counties.

O'Dell most recently drove for Millennium Taxi Service, and owner Tim Duckett said he didn't know O'Dell was without a valid license.

Topping defended Duckett, who recently rejoined the taxi board.

"That's our job to check when the drivers seek a permit," Topping said.

O'Dell has a chance to plead his case before the Chattanooga Taxi Board today. Topping said he'll also present four similar cases to the board.

Taxi troubles

Chattanooga City Council Chairman Manny Rico said this is not the first time the taxi board has had trouble with taxi drivers and companies, and he's confident Topping will get the regulatory office working more smoothly.

Topping said he's basically starting the licensing and inspection processes "all over again."

Trouble with the city's taxi licensing and drivers surfaced about four years ago when a new cab company came to town and its owner didn't fill out the criminal history portion of the license application.

Randy Van Hooser, owner of All-American Cab Co., said he mistakenly did not fill out that part of the form because he had forgotten about some charges and thought others were too old to be considered.

His license application was approved, but when his record of charges came to light - including a 1991 prostitution charge, a 1996 DUI and a 2002 theft over $1,000- his license was revoked.

Van Hooser sued the city, claiming that the board - which included owners of other cab companies - singled him out to limit competition.

On Wednesday, he said he dropped the suit when the city agreed to remove other cab owners from the board. He was displeased to learn the city is putting cab owners - including Duckett - back on the board.

"It's [regulation] getting better, but it's still a joke," Van Hooser said. "There's not a taxi driver in this town who's got a valid permit right now."

Topping said his job has been largely to reinvent the city's database of cabs, drivers and permits.

"It's a slow process. We have 200-something taxis in Chattanooga," Topping said. "Some of them single drivers and some of them have multiple drivers in that same taxi."

History of problems

In June 2009, city internal auditor Stan Sewell reviewed the systems of then-transportation/taxi inspector James Hedrick, who had accepted Van Hooser's incomplete application.

Sewell's report said Hedrick, also a Chattanooga police officer, failed to report the discrepancies even though he had done a criminal records check on Van Hooser and found the charges.

The audit report cited numerous omitted cab inventories and the failure to document insurance for all cabs, despite a city code requiring it.

Two months after Sewell's report, a police internal affairs report cleared Hedrick of any wrongdoing inside the department, although he was reassigned.

Mayor Ron Littlefield then appointed a city employee to take Hedrick's place. That inspector, Guy Satterfield, became ill and retired, city officials said.

The taxi, business in the meantime, basically has gone nearly a year with little oversight, said Topping and Rico.

Starting over

Topping and auditor Sewell said last week that rebuilding the system will take time.

Although it currently is the taxi board's job to check driver's licenses, the Tennessee Department of Safety also has a financial responsibility information line - 615-741-3954 - that cab and other business owners can use to check the license status of anyone with a Tennessee license.

"And we want to make the drivers put their pictures and names with a card in every taxi," Topping said, "so customers can identify them and report them if they think there is a problem."

Topping and Duckett said the taxi business in Chattanooga is generally a good business, but they want it to be even better.

"This is many people's first impression of our city, and the cabs and drivers should be clean and make a good impression," Topping said.

"First impressions are often lasting impressions," Duckett said.

POLL: Have you used one of the city's taxi services?