Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will Taxicab Issue Ever Be Settled?

City Attorney’s legal opinion helps clarify things, but it’s still a contentious issue.

By - Jan 21st, 2014 01:05 pm

Readers may remember when the Milwaukee County Board arrived on its white horse to settle what appeared to be a city issue, the regulation of taxicabs. Given the problems county officials had settling their own affairs, that seemed an odd case of overreach.

The board approved a resolution that calls for the county to “negotiate” but essentially dictate its takeover of regulating cabs from the city. A bemused Milwaukee County executive Chris Abele vetoed the measure, stating that the  “clear, plain language of the state statutes vests the authority to regulate and license taxicabs with cities, villages and towns.” Undaunted, the board voted 14-4 to override Abele’s veto.

Yellow Cabs

Yellow Cabs outside the Pfister Hotel

The board did not seek a legal opinion from the county corporation counsel on this issue, but instead went by the opinion of the measure’s key supporter, Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan Jr., who assured his colleagues that the provision would encounter no legal problems.

Last week, City Attorney Grant Langley issued an legal opinion echoing Abele and concluding that “such an agreement would not be legal or enforceable.” Wisconsin Statutes 349.24 “provides only that cities, villages and towns in the State of Wisconsin may regulate and license taxicabs and taxicab operators.”

Nor can the city “bargain away” its power to regulate taxis. Langley cites a 1964 court case, City of Milwaukee v. Milwaukee Amusement, Inc., which concluded that once such power is given to a municipal or other public corporation, it “cannot in any manner be contracted away or otherwise granted, delegated, diminished, divided or limited by the corporation.”

Further, Langley noted, “while Wisconsin counties are permitted to create and maintain transit commissions and establish public transportation systems” by state statute, taxicabs are “specifically exempted” from this provision.

You might think that would settle the issue. But you would be wrong.

The reaction of Supervisor John Weishan Jr. was that Langley’s opinion wasn’t a fatal setback for the effort to transfer taxi regulation. He said Abele should now lobby the legislature to change the law.

This is the same Weishan who promised the measure was legal. Now he thinks the legislature will for the first time give a county in Wisconsin power over taxicabs, and give that power to a county board it is clearly skeptical about and whose budget and powers it significantly cut back last year. Moreover, it’s quite likely the Milwaukee Common Council, which has given no sign it wants to relinquish this power, would oppose this change, so why would the legislature wade into this fight?

In short, it’s rather obvious, probably to all but Weishan, that the county bid to get into the taxi business is dead.

The Common Council meanwhile unanimously approved (in late November) an ordinance that authorizes up to 100 new cab permits before Nov. 1, 2014.

The council acted in response to a ruling (in April) by Circuit Judge Jane Carroll which ruled that the city ordinance creating the cap on permits violated the state constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses.  The case was brought to her by the libertarian advocacy group, Institute for Justice, representing taxicab drivers in Milwaukee, which argued that there should be no cap on permits

As I’ve reported previously, Milwaukee has one taxi for every 1,850 residents. That compares to one for every 319 residents in Phoenix, one for 424 Chicago residents and one for every 551 residents in San Francisco. A key reason for this a resolution passed by the Milwaukee Common Council in 1992 that capped the number of taxicab permits at 321. Since then the cost of these permits has risen from just a few thousand dollars to as much as $175,000 or even $200,000.

Carroll’s ruling was appealed by the city in August and briefs by both sides (the city and the Institute for Justice) before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals are complete.  Anthony Sanders, attorney for the Institute for Justice, says that several friends of the court have filed briefs also supporting ending the cap on cab permits: the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty on behalf of the Southeastern Wisconsin Taxi Drivers Association; the Pacific Legal Foundation and Reason Institute; and Professor Peter Cartensen of UW-Madison Law School along with the school’s Neighborhood Law Clinic.

On the other side, allied with the city, is the Wisconsin Taxi Owners Association, which represents the few companies who dominate the taxicab business, including the kingpin owner Michael Sanfelippo (brother of Republican state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo). My guess is that both sides might appeal if the decision goes against them. So the issue seems far from settled.

Short Takes

-Though he’s not running in 2014, you’re likely to see Gov. Scott Walker running against former Gov. Jim Doyle and accusing his former cabinet secretary Mary Burke for trying to return to those “bleak days” of “the failed liberal policies of Doyle.”

But was Doyle really all that liberal? Back when he was governor, one conservative Republican told me he considered Doyle the “most conservative” governor he’d served under, calling him more fiscally conservative then either Republicans Tommy Thompson or Scott McCallum. Doyle was obsessed with cutting the number of state employees and the state’s ranking for relative tax burden declined on his watch.

Certainly Doyle spent more on schools than Walker did, but in relative terms he wasn’t particularly liberal. But he served during the Great Recession, which allows Walker to blame that on Doyle and his “liberal” ways.

-Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice offered a muted slap at Milwaukee Magazine for not disclosing that free lance writer Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz had signed a petition to recall Scott Walker. Her story, however, wasn’t about Walker but took a critical look at former legislator Cathy Stepp’s leadership of the state Department of Natural Resources.

In print, Bice’s story ran at the back of his column and you get the feeling he lacked enthusiasm about it. As Milwaukee Magazine editor Kurt Chandler noted to Bice, this can become a slippery slope: do you disclose how writers voted regarding a public official they’re covering or their stand on any controversial issue they might be writing about?

I wrote about Tom Ament and the county pension scandal and also signed a petition to recall him from office. I wasn’t the only reporter in that category, but that was before everything in this state became so polarized. In the past, questions about ethical violations had to do with whether the writer had any financial connection to what he or she was writing about. Extending the question of conflicts to their political views makes things far more complicated.

If Mil Mag must start making these disclosures, then should the Journal Sentinel always tell its readers that its columnist Christian Schneider, who regularly writes stirring defenses of Republicans, was employed for years as a full-time legislative aide to Republicans? Sure his column is labeled opinion, but if readers need full disclosure, why not in this case?

Bice finishes his column noting that the paper’s ethical code prevents reporters from signing a recall petition. That sounds very pure, but is mostly a question of financial resources. The JS can require this but most publications in the state rely heavily on free lancers and are in no position to make such demands on them.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Will Taxicab Issue Ever Be Settled?”

  1. Bruce Thompson says:

    I thought the Bice item was very odd. First I don’t see the relevance of the JS policy to a freelance writer at another publication. If the JS felt the need for such a policy, that was its right so long as it wasn’t applied retroactively.

    More disturbingly, Walker seems to have established a de facto enemies list, so that anyone who signed the recall is ineligible for any state appointment, including as student representative to the UW regents. I don’t see why Bice feels called upon to extend that list to journalists.

    Finally when I was collecting signatures to run for office, when I encountered people who said they didn’t know enough about me to sign, I used to argue that if they signed they could vote against me in the election, but if I didn’t get enough signatures, they couldn’t. Sometimes it worked. I never tried to compile an enemies list of people who signed my opponents’ papers.

  2. Tim says:

    It is hard to resolve the taxicab issue because the crony capitalist Milwaukee city hall will do anything to protect the established business interests, primarily the Sanfelippo family. City hall has actually put in a provision that will force the new 100 permit holders to work for a monopoly. They city hall accomplishes this in the name of training. The city has a rule that any new permit holder has to be “affiliated” with a fleet. City continues to waste taxpayer to protect the Sanfelippos. Hopefully law and constitutional freedom prevail in the end. Let the free market prevail. Shame on the city of Milwaukee for siding with taxi cartel rather than honest people willing to earn an honest living by exercising their constitutional freedom.

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