For the last several months, the City Council of Santa Monica has been considering which taxicab companies will be allowed to operate within its bounds. The issue has become a source of controversy and protest, especially among Armenian taxi companies who say the selection process has been discriminatory and unfair.
On October 12, ANCA-WR and AYF representatives were on hand with Armenian taxi drivers for a City Council meeting where a procedural motion on the issue was considered. The Council heard remarks from the public and set aside November 9th as the date of a public hearing solely dedicated to this matter.
After looking into the concerns of Armenian taxicab companies over the lack of transparency and suspected discrimination in the franchise recommendation process, we decided to get involved, said Nora Hovsepian, an ANCA-WR Board Member who attended the Council meeting. We have been communicating both in writing and in person with members of the City Council asking for responses to the unanswered questions which are fueling these suspicions, she explained. The City’s response, or lack thereof, will guide our future efforts in this regard.
Displeasure over the process arose in late June, when city administrators released a recommendation listing five companies they suggested be given the sole right to operate in Santa Monica. Out of these five companies, only two were locally-based and none Armenian owned or operatedin a city where the majority of taxi drivers and the plurality of companies which applied for the franchise are Armenian.
Several Armenian companies joined together to stage protests against the recommendation. They maintain that they meet and exceed the criteria required by the city for the franchises better than several of the five companies which were chosen.
Requests for the city to alleviate these concerns by making the selection process transparent and revealing the itemized scores each company received have yet to be met. There has been a marked reluctance by the city to release such information or provide an explanation beyond the overall rankings.
What we are talking about here is the livelihood of up to 300 Armenian families, said Serouj Aprahamian, Executive Director of the AYF. With one fell swoop, Armenian taxi workers face the potential of being excluded from a city where they have served for years. The least they are owed is an open process and proper explanation for what is being decided.
The City Council meeting on October 12 served as one of the first opportunities concerned parties had to address the Council. Armenian taxi workers and their families were in attendance alongside representatives of the ANCA-WR and AYF.
Even before public comments began, City Council members themselves raised questions and concerns. They asked the City Attorney what they were allowed to talk about during the meeting and whether they could make changes to the recommendation as it stands. Several times, council members openly stated that the process has been confusing for them. They were unclear about how the procedure for deciding on franchises works or how to move forward with alternative solutions.
When the floor was opened for comment, Hovsepian took to the podium and delivered remarks as both a Santa Monica resident and ANCA-WR Board Member. These suspicions of discrimination have yet to be alleviated despite numerous requests for disclosures from the city as to the selection process, stated Hovsepian. It is our hope that the November 9th date will not simply be a rubber-stamping process.
Virtually all of the other comments presented were critical of the recommendation, as well. The impact of the decision on local businesses and the cloud of secrecy surrounding the franchise selection were repeatedly emphasized.
All of this pointed to the likelihood of a highly charged public hearing on November 9th. The meeting is expected to bring the matter to a head before the Council makes its final decision on the city staffs recommendation.
There is no legitimate reason behind the staff recommendation and the dislocation of Armenian companies, said Varouj Kouzikian, representing an alliance of Armenian taxi drivers in Santa Monica. Our intent is to go to the public hearing in large numbers and make our voice heard. We want a fair allocation of franchises in a way that avoids the discrimination of the Armenian community. We’re willing to take this struggle all the way to the end.
The taxi franchise public hearing set for November 9th will take place at 5:30 PM at City Hall, 1685 Main St in Santa Monica. Concerned community members are being encouraged to attend.