Ethiopian and other Foreign-born taxi drivers in Columbus, Ohio, say the city is trying to drive them out of business
By David Conrad
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
In an effort to make Columbus a cab-friendly town, a committee of city, community and business officials recently recommended requiring that cabbies have a U.S. driver’s license for at least five years. The current rule is six months.
“I think this attitude is unfortunate and it smacks of racism,” said Shabaka Ture, a committee member and former manager of the Independent Taxicab Association, which represents mostly foreign-born drivers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio agrees.
“This is somewhere between ill-advised and flat-out illegal,” said Jeff Gamso, the organization’s legal director. “It’s a way of saying to people that ‘we don’t want you here.’ ”
There are about 1,000 cabdrivers in Columbus, according to the city’s license office. Araya Gebremeskel, manager of the Independent Taxicab Association of Columbus, said his organization represents about 710 drivers.
Of those, about 530 would lose their jobs if the proposal were enacted. There is talk about grandfathering current drivers, but no decision has been made. Gebremeskel, however, said it still would be wrong to exclude anyone as new drivers.
The 18-member committee, led by Experience Columbus, the convention and visitors bureau, developed a series of recommendations, including the license requirement, to improve cab rides.
Two committee members — one from Acme Taxi and one from an independent company — said they voiced their opposition during the 18 months the committee has met.
Gabrielle Marshall Thomas of Acme Taxi said the five-year rule is “a barrier to entry” in Columbus and that the committee presented no clear reasons for including it.
Columbus Green Cabs Inc., which runs Yellow Cab and represents 128 taxis in the city, has two members on the committee. The company says it already uses the five-year rule.
“There is no hidden agenda here. It’s simply an attempt to upgrade the skills of those coming into this industry,” said James Stofer, president of Green Cabs.
“Just because they are from other countries doesn’t mean that they are familiar with our driving rules and regulations.”
But drivers argue that passing the state driving test and a city cab test should be evidence enough that they know the rules and the area.
“If they think we don’t dress well enough or think we aren’t measuring up, then tell us what we can do to improve,” said Fesshaye Beyene, 43, who left Ethiopia 11 years ago.
“You can’t just make up a rule that prohibits people from working because they haven’t been an American for long enough.”
Fred Yates Jr., chairman of the city’s Vehicle for Hire Board and a committee member, said he likes the proposal, which still must be approved by the City Council.
“We deliberated a lot on this, and it’s not a punitive type of thing,” he said. “We felt that the riding public would benefit from this and we want to benefit the public.
“We just want a cab license to be more of a privilege.”
Sharon Gadd, who manages the license office, said the city has received 15 complaints this year about cabs. Ten were claims of overcharging and five were complaints about cabs showing up late.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman is currently reviewing the recommendations.
“He is looking for a higher license standard so we can get the highest quality drivers,” said spokesman Michael Brown. “He will consider the five-year change, but may not support extending it for that long.”
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