City Council defers taxi commission vote

Photo by Viktor Bystrov.

At their meeting on Tuesday, Sep. 20, 2022, members of Kingston City Council opted to defer a vote to dissolve the Kingston and Area Taxi Commission (KATC) until later in 2023. The move came after Councillors were informed by KATC’s chair, Joseph Dowser, of several operational changes that the Commission has undertaken over the past year. 

“In the past twelve months, we have made significant and lasting improvements to the Commission’s operations. I believe that the Commission is better serving the industry and the public’s interests than it ever has before. The changes we made have been transformational,” Dowser argued. 

Council was originally set to vote on an option to dissolve the Commission and bring taxi licensing and governance in-house. The motion came after Council voted in May 2022 to explore alternatives to the current Commission, following a tense standoff between the city’s taxi industry and the KATC.

At this week’s meeting, councillors heard from representatives of Amey’s Taxi and Modern City Taxi, who still called for a dissolution of the KATC. “We feel, at Modern City Taxi, that the time has come. We just want to be treated as the other municipalities of similar size and similar dynamics. None of them have a taxi commission; they all come under a branch of [the municipal government],” said Brian Campbell of Modern City Taxi.

Reflecting on their experience of instability under the current framework, Mark Greenwood of Amey’s Taxi drew a metaphor from a popular Tom Hanks movie from the ’90s. “The [KATC] can work well at times, it cannot work well at times. It’s [an] all-volunteer committee. It’s like Forrest Gump, we never know what chocolate we’re going to get from the box, year after year. I think, as the second-largest transportation [network] in the city of Kingston besides public transit, it’s time that [we become] professionally managed… and have some consistency from year to year.” 

It was Commissioner Dowser who made the biggest case for the KATC, as he pointed to a number of changes that the organization claims to have undertaken in the past year, as part of its response to previous criticisms.

“We inherited a decaying management system, then we totally revolutionized it. We’re currently in the final stages of rolling out to our stakeholders a state-of-the-art, user-friendly information portal. This will especially help taxi owners and operators who were experiencing health challenges or who are unable to attend our office,” he stated. 

Dowser argued that the current KATC provides a necessary “arm’s length” approach to governance: “I believe that by having a taxi commission in existence, you have an unbiased committee that is not influenced by political views.” 

When asked by Lakeside District Councillor Wayne Hill why the two biggest taxi providers in Kingston would seemingly contradict the notion that the Commission has improved in recent years, Dowser replied, “All of this kerfuffle is based upon the past history of the Commission… [their] concern is the Commission will go back to the way it was. We have put mechanisms in place that will not allow that to happen.” 

It should be noted that Dowser’s assertion that current concerns are exclusively based on the structure and operation of previous commissions has been disputed by those in the industry. This past spring, the KATC sought to implement a controversial 40 per cent rate hike, which drew fierce pushback from taxi operators and members of the public. The rate changes were proposed by the current Commission, for which Dowser serves as Chair.

In terms of additional changes, Dowser said that he intends to remove elements from the by-law that give members of the executive branch special powers to override decisions made by the Commission. “I have assured [the brokers] that, with new motions in play, that will be stripped from the by-law and will ensure that all communications, motions, and correspondence go to the floor.” 

Following the delegations, the staff report was brought forward for debate, and councillors first considered the option to dissolve the commission. King’s Town District Councillor Rob Hutchison called for an end to the organization in light of the years of ongoing complaints.

“For the last two or three years, I’ve been hearing concerns about the operation of the Taxi Commission… As you witnessed today, there’s very different takes on this,” said Hutchison. “There has to be more clarity and more transparency… in order to run something that affects the public so fundamentally, as the taxi industry and the rideshare program.” 

Hutchison noted that the taxi industry may not always agree with the future decisions made by the City, but that representatives recognize the implication of moving the services in-house. “I’ve warned them that being managed by the City doesn’t mean they’re going to get their own way. The City’s going to try and do a good job, as they usually do [when] managing these deals. But there’s not always going to be agreement, and the [taxi industry] acknowledges that.” 

Williamsville District’s Jim Neill questioned whether the option to bring taxi licensing and other services within the existing municipal framework would allow for members of the public to have the same level of input as they do under the existing Commission. Currently, citizens can apply to serve as members of the KATC, something the City of Kingston’s CAO Lanie Hurdle said could be included through a “working group.” Hurdle also indicated that, under the City’s existing structures, there are a number of ways in which members of the public would be able to voice their opinions and concerns, such as through the Environment, Infrastructure, and Transportation Policies Committee [EITP]. 

“There would be different mechanisms in terms of public input, obviously by-laws that are related to taxi services would most likely go through [EITP]… it is definitely a mechanism through which we know the public has access to make delegations and be quite involved and engaged, and those would then make their way to Council,” said Hurdle. 

In terms of taxi fees, the CAO mentioned that such fares would be included within the City’s Fees and Charges by-law. “That information is public. The public has the ability to be engaged in terms of delegation and providing their input to members of Council.”

Speaking about some of the new online services that the KATC has begun offering to its providers, City Commissioner Paige Agnew indicated that the City plans to incorporate taxi licensing through its DASH portal, should those responsibilities be absorbed by the municipality.

“It would be integrated with the rest of our online system for payments,” Agnew said.

While several Councillors spoke in favour of the dissolution option, Sydenham District representative Peter Stroud expressed several concerns. “Having heard from the current Chair of the Commission, I’m in a little bit of a dilemma, because they’ve demonstrated… that they were earnestly working to address all of the concerns that have been brought up. I think we can all agree that there’s been a lot of progress made in that regard,” he said. 

Despite the fact that Stroud had been an early supporter of the motion, the councillor now conceded that additional time should be allowed for the Commission to continue working through some of its organizational reforms. “I think it would be a real shame for us to pre-emptively undo that to, in essence, a team that is now playing well… to essentially fold the team… Maybe it was broke, but is it being fixed?” Stroud questioned.

“Currently, we have members of the public that sit as taxi commissioners, with a taxi commission that’s making great strides, and that would be replaced by a working group that would maybe be one or two members of the public appointed by [the nominations committee],” Stroud continued. “That’s not the same as a taxi commissioner, so the accountability is being shifted 100 per cent onto the shoulders of Council, rather than a commission with one Council appointee.”

Pittsburgh District Councillor Ryan Boehme reiterated some of Stroud’s comments as he also urged councillors to give the Commission more time. “I think this is something where it makes sense to wait and see how the Commission plays out with their changes coming. This is something where, if the Commission fails in the future, or if future Councils decide, they can always bring it in-house at that time.” 

Boehme added that the solutions that KATC is in the process of implementing seem significant enough to warrant additional time before making a final decision. “Having seen the change in the governance structure, having seen the great strides that they’ve made including the community members as part of that, I feel like it’s actually something where we have to give them the chance to let this play out. We don’t have to make a knee-jerk reaction right now to past complaints,” he said. 

Loyalist-Cataraqui District Councillor Simon Chapelle, who serves as the current City Council representative to the KATC, then reiterated his support for the Commission: “I can tell you that the delegations in support of the Taxi Commission are absolutely correct. There has been a great deal of successful and transformative change in this last year. With transformative change in our policies and procedures, we’ve installed foundations of good governance, which will lead the Commission going forward.”

Chapelle noted that receiving and acting on feedback is an ongoing priority. “Supporting public safety, the Commission has modernized its systems, and customers’ concerns are now sent directly to the Commission and not filtered through the taxi stand. Complaints for the first time in the history of the Commission are fully transparent and acted upon swiftly,” he asserted. 

After a number of councillors expressed reservations regarding the dissolution of the Commission while it was still undergoing significant governance and operational changes — all while the current makeup of Council stands to change after the municipal election next month — Council voted on a motion to defer the report to Q3 2023, in order to allow City staff time to properly review the changes implemented by the Commission. The motion also calls on staff to provide a “direct comparison” of services currently offered by the KATC and the proposed in-house services. 

Councillor Hutchison, the mover of the initial motion in support of Option Two, spoke against the deferral, as he called the KATC a “fiefdom of its own.”

“Once the commission is beyond the control of the City and Council, it is beyond. That has been part of the problem for a long time… We have input into the people who are on it, but not the governance of it, and there have been questions about that governance,” he said.

Ultimately, the motion to defer was carried by a vote of 10-3, with councillors Jeff McLaren, Hutchison, and Hill opposed. The move will allow the KATC time to fully implement their governance changes, and provide City staff with time to review the exact details of the Commission’s operations and the success of those governance changes.

Although City Council meetings can usually be viewed after they take place through the Kingston City Council YouTube page, the Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, meeting was not available to view at time of publication. Kingstonist reached out to the City of Kingston for the reasoning behind this, however, response was not received by time of publication.

Kingstonist will update this article if/when more information becomes available on viewing the September 20 City Council meeting online.

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