Taxi group calls for overhaul of cab oversight system

A Boston taxi driver association Tuesday called on Mayor Thomas M. Menino to abolish the police hackney unit responsible for regulating the industry and create a civilian commission that would oversee a revamped system in which cabdrivers work as employees rather than independent contractors.

A day after Menino responded to a Globe Spotlight Team investigation by ordering an overhaul of the hackney division as a part of a sweeping review of the city’s $1 billion taxi industry, the association described the unit as broken beyond repair.

“The Boston Police hackney division is a dysfunctional, mismanaged agency that has abetted a systemically corrupt industry that takes earnings away from working drivers and gives them to millionaires,’’ the association’s leader, Donna Blythe-Shaw, said in a news conference in South Boston.

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She was surrounded by drivers who described themselves as victims of a city-sanctioned system that for decades has put the interests of wealthy taxi owners over everyday workers.

The association chief called for the immediate dismissal of the city’s chief taxi regulator, Mark Cohen, who has become a lightning rod for cab drivers who believe that the city’s hackney unit that he leads has enabled the economic oppression visited upon a large number of them. Many drivers said they consider him imperious and condescending.

“If the mayor is true to his word about reform and a review of the system, his first act should be to fire Mark Cohen,’’ Blythe-Shaw told reporters. “At that time I think we might believe he is sincere about what he says.’’

Menino and Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis would not comment directly on Monday about Cohen’s future as the civilian director of licensing for the Police Department. They said the unit’s top uniformed officer is now taking an enhanced role to supervise city-licensed cabs, something Cohen has done since the 1980s.

The taxi drivers association, which claims 1,200 members, said the city should revoke the licenses—or medallions—of cab company owners who have been found to accept bribes in exchange for the keys to their taxis or who systemically overcharge drivers in violation of city police regulations.

The Globe’s nine-month investigation this week detailed an industry rife with common payoffs. The newspaper reported Sunday that federal law enforcement authorities have opened a criminal investigation.

Flanked by taxi drivers, the association chief was joined by attorney Shannon E. Liss-Riordan, who has filed a class-action lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court, challenging the independent contractor system—a system in which drivers pay cab owners about $100 plus gas for each 12-hour shift and receive no benefits.

Liss-Riordan said the independent contractor model—known as “panhandling on wheels’’ to some drivers—must be supplanted with a different economic model that would afford drivers with health care and other benefits.

Menino is vowing to push the state Legislature to require higher insurance for taxis, most of which now operate with state minimum bodily injury coverage of $20,000, less than half the required coverage for bike messenger services and much lower than taxis must cover in many other large cities.

State Representative Garrett J. Bradley, a Hingham Democrat, has sponsored a bill three times since 2007 to sharply increase the minimum bodily injury insurance required for taxis. The Joint Committee on Financial Services has passed it three times, but the bill has drawn opposition from the insurance industry and never been passed by the House, according to Bradley’s staff.

Bradley filed the bill a fourth time in January and said Tuesday that he hoped the problems underscored by the Globe reports would result in action this session. The legislation would raise the mandatory insurance for taxis from $20,000 to cover one person’s injuries and $40,000 to cover multiple people to $100,000 and $300,000, respectively – the levels required by New York City and Los Angeles.

“Right now, if you just allow them to carry 20/40 coverage, that won’t even cover a dental bill if you’re hurt in a cab,’’ he said.

He also wants the Legislature to consider making it easier for people injured by cabs to pursue the broader corporate holdings of taxi cab fleet owners in the hopes of getting compensation. As the Globe series reported, many fleet owners, including the largest, Edward J. Tutunjian, the owner of 372 taxis, limit their liability by dividing their medallions into numerous small corporations that exist largely on paper.

“I was not aware until I read the series that there was this sort of corporate structure,’’ said Bradley, a lawyer. “I think we should have the ability to make it easier in these situations to pierce that veil.’’

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