Some Charlotte City Council members appeared uninterested Monday in a proposal to have more taxicabs operating at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
City staff had floated that option following former Mayor Patrick Cannon’s arrest on federal corruption charges and continued allegations of a “pay-to-play” scheme.
After the airport in 2011 reduced the number of taxi companies that could pick up passengers at the airport from 12 to three, losing companies charged that they were asked to give money to a local hospitality lobbying group in exchange for a place at Charlotte Douglas. They also alleged that Cannon, a board member of the group, was unduly influencing the selection process.
After Cannon’s arrest in March, two taxicab owners told the Observer they were approached in 2011 by a man who said he was an associate of Cannon. They said the man asked them for $10,000 in exchange for getting a spot back at the airport.
Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said he believes the selection process was fair. But he said the airport wants to investigate any allegations and said one remedy might be to reopen the selection process, possibly allowing more companies to serve Charlotte Douglas.
Council members balk at idea
But some council members pushed back against that idea. At-large council member David Howard questioned whether the city should revisit the issue “because of newspaper articles.”
“(The cab companies at the airport) haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “Why add more companies? It seems unfair to me. They played exactly by the rules.”
At-large council member Michael Barnes also questioned why the city should revisit the issue. “We want the best cars and the best service,” he said. “From my perspective, we have been accomplishing that.”
Taxicab owners and drivers were major donors during the 2013 city elections.Yellow Cab is one of three companies that can operate at the airport. Yellow Cab’s out-of-state owners – Neal Nichols, William Bodenhamer Jr. and Mitchell Rouse – were among Cannon’s largest campaign donors during his run for mayor, each donating the $8,000 legal maximum. Alice Rouse – who co-owns Yellow Cab property in Charlotte with Mitchell Rouse and Bodenhamer – also wrote Cannon a $4,000 check.
Bodenhamer donated $1,000 to the most recent campaigns of Howard, Claire Fallon, Vi Lyles and LaWana Mayfield. Barnes received $24,000 from Rouse, Bodenhamer and Nichols in 2013.
Barnes and Howard have said the donations didn’t influence their votes. Barnes has said he was a council member who lobbied the airport to increase the number of cabs that could operate at the airport.
The airport said it reduced the number of cab companies that can operate at the airport to improve customer service. Drivers must now have amenities such as a GPS and credit-card machines. The airport also said that, under the old system, drivers had to wait too long to pick up customers.
GOP’s Smith alleges bias
Republican Kenny Smith, who wasn’t on council in 2011, said he didn’t understand why it was the airport’s concern if drivers were choosing to wait for passengers. He also said the airport could have required all drivers to improve their cars while not reducing competition. “The government is picking winners and losers,” Smith said.
Republican Ed Driggs asked city staff about the financial benefit for the companies that hold one of the three contracts.
The taxi contract will expire in July. The airport could choose to extend the contract for the three companies – Yellow Cab, Crown Cab and City Cab.
Cagle said he may spend the next month studying whether the city should change the contract, possibly by allowing more companies to operate at the airport.
City Manager Ron Carlee said creating a new Request for Proposal would take at least six months. He said it might lead to lawsuits from taxi companies that weren’t selected.
Lyles said she is hesitant for the city to reopen the taxi issue because of Cannon’s arrest. “I’m not qualified to be an investigator,” she said. “I’m not a (police officer). I’m concerned about what drives this.”
Obaid Khan, co-owner of Diamond Cab, said he didn’t think 30 more days to study the cab contract would change the outcome. Diamond Cab lost its permit to serve the airport. “They’re just delaying it to find another loophole,” Khan said. “It was rigged.”
Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed