A Cabbie's Crusade

Javier Peña is a maverick cabbie on a mission to turn the notorious Miami taxi industry into a respectable profession. So far he's been threatened, shot at, fined, and fired. In other words, he's making progress.

Shvartsman wonders the same thing. After his pleas went largely unheeded last year, he sent an emissary to see A.C. Weinstein, a columnist for the weekly SunPost, with a request for him to expose how the practice was hurting honest taxi drivers. Weinstein wrote a column in the paper's August 15 edition. Drivers affiliated with Peña then kept an eye on the SunPost newsracks and produced the following notation worthy of a CIA field report: "On 8-16-02, our field surveillance tracked a 'rogue driver' gathering the 8-15-02 edition from SunPost news containers on the streets of Miami Beach ... apparently for the purpose of removing from circulation and public awareness. The publications were clandestinely retrieved after the rogue driver discarded them in a dumpster."

Around this time, a meeting was held in Miami Beach regarding the door-buying problem. Among the attendees were, from the Beach: Mayor David Dermer, Commissioner Matti Bower, parking director Saul Frances, city tourism guru Michael Aller, a police captain, and Stu Blumberg; and from the county: Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, consumer services director Sheila Rushton, and PTRD head Joe Mora. An activist driver from Central Cab, who asked to be given an alias to avoid backlash from other drivers, had requested the meeting because earlier in the year the county and the city had signed an interlocal agreement allowing city police to enforce county ordinances regarding taxis. This driver, whom we'll call Alex, says the goal of the meeting was to kick around ideas about increased enforcement, and whether the city could pass its own rules holding the hotels partially responsible for the unsavory activity taking place at their front doors. Alex says the meeting went well, with all parties agreeing in principle to do what they could about the problem.

Then a major roadblock -- the hotel association wanted to kill the effort. "Stu Blumberg gets up and tells the mayor I'm a fucking liar and [the door-buying] is not happening," he recalls. "Everybody was stunned."

That was pretty much the end of the meeting. Blumberg didn't return phone calls requesting comment, but several other attendees had varying accounts of the meeting. "The hotel industry, their position is while this problem may be happening, they haven't detected it in their operations at their hotels," allows parking director Frances. "I don't know that Stu thinks there's a problem."

Joe Mora's eyes widen slightly at the mention of this incident. "Mr. Blumberg, who we meet with on a regular basis, has always been more than receptive and cooperative in working with us," he hastens to declare. "Whether there was a sidebar [conversation], I can't answer any of that."

Alex the driver persisted, getting Matti Bower to agree to propose a city ordinance that would penalize hotel owners by temporarily suspending their valet permit if employees were found to be participating in door-buying. Through Bower's office, Alex submitted the proposal to the city attorney's office for vetting before being brought to the commission. Alex claims the paperwork went nowhere, and later Bower told him she didn't want to sponsor the ordinance, preferring to wait for the county to handle the problem. "Matti's running for office this year," Alex contends. "The hotel money got to her. They want to squash this."

Alex believes the hotel owners are not interested in the petty problems of taxi drivers, whom they consider the bottom feeders of the tourism industry. While they are probably not getting a direct payoff from the door-buying, Alex thinks hotel owners and managers would rather have their employees hustling taxi drivers for extra cash than thinking up ways to steal from the hotels or their guests.

For her part, Matti Bower says Alex doesn't have the story quite right. She says she was working on the proposed ordinance to help the drivers, but "people" don't want it and there's a tricky question of whether the door-sellers are employees of the hotel or a valet company. She claims to have lost contact with Alex for a period, but recently met with him and a Beach police captain. "The police verified it was a problem," she says. "I'm going to bring an ordinance to the commission March 19 because it's not fair and needs to be corrected." Bower adds that she's not yet sure what form the ordinance would take.

Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, in a recent memo to city commissioners, disclosed that city police and the county have been working together to conduct regular stings in an effort to catch the door-buyers. The effort so far has resulted in ten $500 citations for door-buying issued at Beach hotels since August (plus nearly 300 tickets issued to taxi drivers for smaller offenses).

Alex, the driver, thinks the county wants to curb the door-buying epidemic, but like many bureaucracies is understaffed for the job. "The problem is they've got like 27 inspectors to cover the whole county, and they can't arrest people," he explains. "At max, they can issue a $500 fine, ifthey can catch them. For most guys, maybe one fine a year is a write-off, the cost of doing business."

Joe Mora seems like a nice enough fellow, if cautious and bureaucratic. A question about whether the county, with only 27 inspectors to regulate taxis, jitneys, limos, buses, and other forms of licensed passenger transportation, can muster the manpower to seriously tackle door-buying in Miami Beach, elicits the following response: "Ma'am, we are utilizing our resources to address the issue. But again, there are other issues." That would be a no, then? "We believe we're adequately prepared to enforce the ordinance," Mora clarifies. So, yes? "We are actively enforcing this, but we are also enforcing all the other ordinances," he adds weakly.

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