|North Adams Taxi Put on Probation|
|By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff |
04:47AM / Wednesday, February 01, 2023
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday issued a stern warning and 30 days of probation to a local taxi company.
The vote came after nearly an hour of debate over suspending the license of OTT taxi.
"Again, I will reiterate, if you're back here again, it will be my recommendation, and I think my councilors will probably follow along at that point, because they'll feel like they've been slapped in the face," said President Lisa Blackmer. "So it won't be a three- or five-day suspension. It will be a 20 or 30 day."
OTT, or On Time Taxi, was before the council last week
over complaints of unlicensed and underage drivers and unmarked cars being used to pick up fares.
Mayor Jennifer Macksey requested a 20-day suspension of owner John Lord's operating license following the report of yet another complaint.
Councilors had little sympathy for Lord's claims that he didn't know or understand the city's ordinance regulating taxi services but hesitated in disrupting the livelihoods of his drivers and the customers who need them.
"Personally, me, I like to have tolerance and I'd like to have compassion for businesses that are just starting in our community. I want to help them succeed," said Councilor Marie T. Harpin.
Councilor Peter Oleskiewicz said, speaking as a business owner, "you don't want to keep people from being gainfully employed. You don't want to hurt employees."
But the councilors were taken aback by the most recent complaint of a unlicensed dispatcher using a Lord family vehicle to pick up a fare that very morning.
Oleskiewicz said it happened outside his place of business, Miss Adams Diner.
Lord said he had no knowledge of any pickup that morning because he wasn't in town but said the sport utility in question was his and his mother's and had been parked at his house.
"I came to work this morning and there was your car with an unlicensed driver dropping off," said the councilor. "I mean, after what we went through last week, I would think that in the last week, everything would have been perfect behavior, would have been good. Knowing what you're up against right now. And today, I was very disappointed."
Police Chief Jason Wood, who had requested last week's public hearing on the license, said complaints about the taxi service have been mainly about unlicensed drivers.
Lord was accused of driving the taxis and picking up fares without a taxi driver license issued by the city; a 16-year-old was also stopped by police for driving the taxi.
His response has been to repeat that he was unaware of the regulations, saying his insurer had assured him that unlicensed taxi drivers were covered under his policy, and intimated that the police chief had lead him astray on whether to register as a livery or taxi.
Wood said he had never spoken with Lord prior to a meeting with him last year about complaints.
Lord had applied for a taxi license at the Planning Board and then registered with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and insurer as a livery. This was changed after he was notified by police.
Blackmer responded that it's a business owner's responsibility to know the laws regarding that business. She pointed out that the law does not allow an individual under the age of 18 to drive a vehicle for a business.
"When it was brought to Mr. Lord's attention, his responses were saying that this is how I do things and I'm going to continue to do so," she said.
Councilor Bryan Sapienza noted there were resources available to new businesses and that the ordinances are not new.
"We were not showing any particular bias against your company," he said. "If it was the other company involved, I'm sure we'd be in the same position as we are now deciding whether or not to revoke or suspend your license."
Macksey noted that the council had not been in this position before of enforcing the taxi ordinance, "but that's mostly because OTT believes in some instances that our ordinances do not apply to them."
Four people stood to speak for the business, citing its dependability, friendly and helpful drivers, cleanliness, and reasonable rates. The taxi provides a critical service to the community, they said.
Virginia Reel, who move to the city 18 months ago, said the company had made her feel "part of the team" here.
"OTT is more than a taxi company, they're a community service organization. And I hope that this council and administration will support and nurture OTT to bring their services and caring to their customers, who are the people you have been elected to serve," Reel said.
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson made a motion, seconded by Harpin, to impose a 30-day probation period, during which if the company again violated the ordinance, it would be called back on the carpet.
Councilor Keith Bona said he couldn't support that because he felt they would be just starting the process over again if there was another violation. Wilkinson said he understood his point but felt if they imposed a suspension, the same thing could happen. However, he said he would vote for whatever the council decided.
Blackmer suggested a three- to five-day suspension, comparing it to how the Licensing Board escalates penalties for violations.
After more discussion, the council voted 4-2 on Wilkinson's motion of a 30-day probation with Bona and Blackmer voting naye. Councilors Jennifer Barbeau, Michael Obasohan and Ashley Shade were absent.
"If something happens again there's going to be no excuses now, said Bona, adding was disturbed that he heard no remorse from Lord.
"The incident today concerns me because that's the one time we know that happened. How many times do we not know that's happened?" he said, adding that the company's complaints that it was being targeted didn't add up. "If you're getting caught doing something wrong, it's because you did it wrong."