It’s very possible that a 2011 City Council decision to limit the number of taxi companies at Charlotte Douglas International Airport was made without inappropriate outside influence. The plan was approved not only by two committees, but also a significant majority of the council, including Democrats and Republicans who had no known history of corruption.
One of those council members, however, was Patrick Cannon.
Rightly or wrongly, the public sees city government right now through the lens of our former mayor’s arrest in March on corruption charges. For that reason, coupled with some new and old questions about the airport taxi contract, the council should revisit the issue and reopen the taxi selection process.
This week, council members seemed uninterested in doing so. At their meeting Monday, at-large member Michael Barnes said Charlotte Douglas has excellent taxi service thanks to that 2011 vote to pick three companies to serve the airport. At-large member David Howard questioned re-opening the taxi selection process “because of newspaper articles.”
Those articles, published in the Observer since Cannon’s arrest, revealed that the former mayor received more campaign money from one of the airport winners, Yellow Cab, than any other company in the past two elections. The Observer also reported that owners of two losing cab companies said that a Cannon associate asked for $10,000 to get an airport spot back.
At the time, the losing companies had complained about Cannon’s influence on the decision, but losing bidders often display sour grapes about the process. Now, Cannon has been arrested, and although the FBI affidavit doesn’t mention taxis, it does portray a public official who is very comfortable offering political favors for money.
Council members might not like it, but that affidavit stained all of city government. An example: Both Barnes and Howard, along with other council members, received political contributions from Yellow Cab’s owners in 2013. Barnes received most of all, a whopping $24,000. That doesn’t mean that he or his colleagues have been influenced by taxi money, but in the wake of Cannon’s arrest, a raised eyebrow or two is understandable.
That’s why council members and interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle need to start over. The city should reopen the application process for airport taxi service, and the council should be as transparent as possible with its new deliberations. The council also should revisit limiting the number of airport taxi companies to three. Is that still a good idea, given new city taxi standards that lessen the need to exclude bad companies and their cabs?
We understand the frustration of council members and city officials who feel that Cannon’s arrest unfairly tainted them. But the public’s distrust is real right now, and Charlotteans need more than the council’s proposal of a corruption “hotline.” They need their representatives to be transparent, not defensive, about their decisions. The taxi contract, with its controversial history, is the perfect place to start.