By Matthew Jackonen, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 26, 2013
After taxi drivers were implicated in three different crimes since January, the Ann Arbor City Council has been at odds with taxicab and limo companies in defining what type of licensing is right for the tree town.
After a student reported she was raped by a taxi driver, Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) spoke out at the Feb. 4 Ann Arbor City Council meeting. He said the city has a serious problem with unlicensed taxicabs and “rogue limos.”
On Feb. 10, almost a week later, a 23-year-old woman said she was touched in a sexual manner by a Blue Cab taxi driver. Blue Cab said the driver denies this report and reassured customers that the driver would not be allowed to drive taxis in the future. Police then acknowledged that a similar incident occurred on Jan. 23.
The city has been unable to regulate certain companies since they operate throughout the state of Michigan rather than just Ann Arbor. A 1990 law states that cities do not have the authority to regulate companies that operate both inside and outside of specific municipal boundaries.
Kunselman said in an interview that he believes the problem lies in the issue of rogue limousines operating with state — not city — licenses.
“The general public doesn’t really understand what’s happening, and so they assume everybody’s a taxi,” Kunselman said.
Kunselman said the underlying issue is the city doesn’t know who the drivers in these cases. Thus, companies are allowed to operate within the city’s boundaries without the city’s knowledge of the driver’s identity.
“As a parent, we tell our kids not to get in cars with strangers,” Kunselman said. “We have a lot of unsuspecting college kids that come into our community and probably aren’t aware of what’s going on.”
The suspect from the alleged rape reported on Feb. 10 was identified because Blue Cab is one of the companies licensed and regulated by the city. The Blue Cab driver did undergo background checks as a part of the licensing process.
Kunselman said the ability to identify cab companies and their driver is a merit of the city’s system.
“The other two alleged assaults — we have no idea if they were limos or taxis because there’s no record of limousines that operate within the city,” Kunselman said.
John Heed, the former chief operating officer of Select Ride, the parent company of Arbor Limousine and Yellow Car, wrote in a letter to Daily that he doesn’t understand how Kunselman can come to the conclusion that companies licensed and regulated by the city can be considered safer than those licensed by the state.
Heed said he believes the city is out of bounds on this issue, calling Kunselman’s comments “grossly irresponsible and inflammatory” and going so far as to say this may qualify as a “defamation of business.”
Tim Tobias, president of Michigan Green Cab, said he believes the city has no authority to regulate the company because they are already licensed by the state. He added that Kunselman’s use of the term “rogue limos” is irresponsible.
“(The city is) trying to legislate the state-chartered limousines, which they don’t have the authority to do, but they’re certainly trying to do so,” Tobias said.
Tobias said when his brother started Green Cab, he chose to be chartered by the state because it better suited city-to-city travel.
Not only does Michigan Green Cab operate within the laws of the state, but they took further measures — Tobias called them “voluntary concessions” — to ensure clarity for their customers. In early 2011, they removed decals on their cars that have the word “taxi” and replaced them with "licensed limos" decals, before the ordinance required them to do so. The signs on the top of their vehicles also read “limousine."
Tobias said he sees the city as using the recent crimes as a means to gain an advantage and try to regulate these companies that are already monitored by the state.
“Interesting that the only driver charged was a Blue Cab driver — (a) driver and company licensed under the city taxicab ordinances," Tobias said.
He added that the city officials and the taxicab board may be heeding pressure from taxicab companies to enforce regulations on companies like Green Cab because they find it hard to compete.
“If these local taxicab companies want to compete with our service then they need to turn in their used police cruisers … and get some polite, uniformed drivers,” Tobias said. “We’ve raised the bar in Ann Arbor … and nobody’s happy about it.”