ST. LOUIS–(KMOX)–Cab drivers protest outside city hall — claiming the commission that regulates them discriminates against Muslims, and hands down burdensome fines and fees designed to drive the small time cabbie out of the business.
A crowd of about twenty cab drivers picketed against the St. Louis Taxicab Commission, a nine-member agency whose members are appointed by Mayor Slay and four by County Executive Dooley.
Cab driver Raja Naeem says he filed suit against the airport, police and the Taxicab Commission in a dispute over his wanting to wear his Muslim religious clothing while he picked up passengers at Lambert Airport.
“I understand your concerns, but still in America I have my rights,” Naeem said, “And I’m not hurting anybody. I am not a terrorist.”
Cab Commission Executive Director Ronald Klein says the dispute arose when Naeem refused to sign a form.
“We have a form that we ask drivers who want a variance to fill out, so that we can verify that they are indeed practicing their religion,” Klein said, “That individual refused to fill out the form.”
Klein says he personally met with the cab driver’s religious leader at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, Imam Mufti Asif Umar, and reached a compromise.
“And the Imam said that was a ‘wonderful’ solution that should be more than satisfactory,” Klein said.
Umar is out of the country and unavailable for comment. His spokesperson, Dr. Ghazala Hayat, says she knows of no agreement with the Taxicab Commission on religious clothing.
“As far as we know, there has been some discussion, but there has not been any kind of agreement on the clothing,” Hayat said.
Other cab drivers voiced concerns about the Taxicab Commission forcing them to process credit card transactions in a way that costs them too much in fees.
“If I do a thousand dollars a week in credit cards,” said cabbie Rodney Whitrock, “I have to pay upwards of between a hundred and a hundred-twenty-five dollars to cash those credit cards, plus wait a week to be paid.”
Whitrock blames the Taxicab Commission for not allowing cabbies to process their own credit card transactions with attachments to their cell phones.
Klein says this issue strikes at the heart of why the Taxicab Commission was created in 2003, after a scandal involving meter tampering.
“Our main concern is to protect the public from fraud,” Klein said, “We don’t want any of our customers to have their credit card stolen.”
Klein says the fees are imposed by the individual cab companies, and not the commission. He says they may reflect the cost of installing the equipment.
Other cab drivers complained about the rude and disrespectful manner of the Taxicab Commission agents, who drive unmarked cars with sirens and lights capable of pulling over taxicabs to write tickets. Some of the cabbies complained the tickets and fines seem arbitrary, and cut into their profit.
“They give you some ticket if you don’t have a white shirt, or some shoes that maybe need a little cleanup, or dust on the cab,” said cabbie Ghulan Jailani. “They treat me like a criminal. I’m a U.S. citizen.”
Klein defended the action of the agents, enforcing the cab driver’s code.
“We’re not trying to drive anybody out of the business,” Klein said, “First of all, I will tell you, I don’t know any wealthy cab drivers. We have no desire to shake anybody down.”
Taxicab drivers also cite concerns about the composition of the commission. They claim the board members associated with larger cab companies make life difficult for small time cabbies.
The Board of Commissioners are identified as:
Chairman Lou Hamilton, a longtime lobbyist for Mayor Slay; Dave McNutt, owner of Laclede Cab; Tom Reeves, President of Pulaski Bank; Eyasu Asfaw, of the “Airport Best Taxicab” company; Vincent Bennett, CEO of McCormack Baron real estate; Adebabay Gidey, an airport taxi driver; Basil Rudawsky, President of St. Louis County Cab; Larry Satz, a businessman and shoe importer; and Kim Tucci, co-founder of the Pasta House.
The allegations over high credit card fees are set to be discussed at the next meeting of the Taxicab Commission set for April 23, at ten a.m. at 2628 Delmar.