Two white taxicab drivers filed human rights complaints against the city of Portland alleging they were denied access to the Portland International Jetport’s taxi pool because of their race, but state investigators have found “no reasonable grounds” for the discrimination claims.
The complaints were filed in June 2012 but only came to light this month because the Maine Human Rights Commission is scheduled to hear the cases Sept. 8. Initial complaints are confidential, but investigators’ reports to the commission are public documents.
The two men – Paul McDonough of South Portland and Raymond Chasse of Scarborough – alleged that the city discriminated when they were denied “non-reserved taxi” permits required to pick up jetport travelers who did not make reservations with a specific cab company. Chasse has since died.
The dispute stems from the fact that Somali or Iranian immigrants held all of the nearly 50 city-issued permits for curbside taxis at the time. The city dismissed that fact as “happenstance” because of who was already in the jetport taxi pool when the number of permits was capped and the permitting system changed to prevent overcrowding.
While the commission staff has recommended that the complaints be dismissed, the cases illustrate that tensions remain over how the city manages access by taxi companies to airport travelers.
“To me, I would say let the airport permitting system go out of the window and have the city give enough space for any (cab) driver so there will be no fighting,” said Ilyas Sharif, a veteran cabdriver and jetport permit holder who has grown weary of the access controversy.
David Turesky, the attorney representing McDonough and Chasse, repeatedly declined to comment on any aspect of the case. McDonough could not be reached for comment and Turesky declined to connect a reporter with him. Chasse died in December, roughly 18 months after the complaint was lodged.
The investigator’s report provides some details about the initial complaint.
“The complainant alleges that due to his color/race and/or national origin, he was denied a taxicab permit needed to provide services at the Portland International Jetport to customers who had not pre-arranged or reserved a cab,” the report states. “Complainant also alleges that he was subjected to background and criminal history checks by (the city) while drivers with non-reserved permits, who were all from Somalia or Iran, were not subjected to similar scrutiny.”
City officials, in their response to the complaints and in interviews Thursday, said that a permit applicant’s race, ethnicity or nationality were never factors in deciding who received permits. In 2010, the city capped the number of permits at 50 because of overcrowding in the airport’s taxi queuing area. At the time, the city grandfathered the existing permit holders, most of whom happened to be immigrants of Somali or Iranian descent despite the fact that permits were available to any licensed driver.
“It was simply that they were the people who were doing the job based on the economics of the time,” jetport director Paul Bradbury said in an interview.
The city also challenged the timeliness of the complaints because they were not filed within 300 days of the decision to cap the number of permits at 50, thereby closing the pool to new applicants.
The Maine Human Rights Commission investigator agreed that McDonough and Chasse failed to file a timely complaint, but also found “no reasonable grounds” for the bias claims. Neither man held unreserved permits prior to the city’s decision to close the pool and grandfather existing permit holders.
“There is no evidence to suggest that complainant would not be in the exact same situation – without a non-reserved permit – if every one of the drivers who were grandfathered under the regulation were Caucasian and/or American born,” wrote the investigator, Robert Beauchesne.
The state human rights panel is often the first public body where discrimination complaints are vetted. Investigators have up to two years to complete a report on a complaint, and those reports are then reviewed by the full commission, which can agree or disagree with the investigators’ findings.
Once the commission acts, the complainant can file a lawsuit, seek an out-of-court settlement or drop the complaint. In a small number of cases, the commission will pursue court action against the accused party.
The Human Rights Commission report is just the latest flare-up over the airport taxi pool.
In 2011, the city attempted to whittle down the number of unreserved taxi permits – and prompt more turnover within the pool – by requiring holders to appear in person to renew their permits. The move was in response to complaints that some permit holders were using authorized representatives – through power-of-attorney deals – to renew even if they were visiting family back in Somalia.
However, 11 cabdrivers sued, prompting the city to drop the policy change. City councilors then spent several months reviewing options for improving the system for allocating permits in a city with a total of 197 licensed cabs.
Last year, the jetport instituted new rules that will drop the number of jetport permits from the current cap of 45 to 42 in June 2017. A lottery will be used to allocate the permits, but current holders will have first dibs in the lottery.
Bradbury said he believes the rule changes put in place since 2010 are working, despite the occasional frustrations among those who cannot obtain permits because of lack of turnover within the capped pool. He said the jetport doesn’t take applications so he could not say precisely how many other drivers want to be in the taxi pool.
“We are not having the problems that we had in the past with overcrowding (at the airport) and other issues,” Bradbury said. “When I first started, we had fistfights in the non-reserved queue. It was the wild, wild West.”
It costs $800 a year for a jetport taxi permit. A basic city cab license costs $300 a year per vehicle.
Sharif, who runs Jetport Cab as well as a medical transportation company, said he started his taxi career nine years ago by operating largely out of the jetport. He and a second person who drives his cab still pick up passengers curbside at the airport.
Sharif said many of the drivers who have airport permits are independent operators who are not part of a larger company or a dispatch system. So those drivers depend more on fares from airport travelers.
But Sharif said the business can be unpredictable, and he suspects that many drivers who want an unreserved taxi permit would quickly realize that unpredictability, especially during slower months.
“Some people think that they could make more money if they could go there, but that is not the reality,” said Sharif, a native of Somalia.
During slow months, especially during winter, drivers may average $3 or $4 an hour for an entire day’s work. But during summer months, earnings can be substantially more. For example, a driver could make $200 for a single long-distance trip to the Boston area, he said.
Some drivers prefer the jetport because it is considered a safer route, but it takes patience, he said.
“They have the patience to sit there for three, four or sometimes five hours and get one fare,” Sharif said.