BY SHOGHAK KAZANDJIAN
SANTA MONICA, Calif.,–Despite protests and overwhelming grassroots opposition, the Santa Monica City council on November 9 voted to rubber stamp a flawed and dubious recommendation that would effectively prohibit the city’s five local Armenian-owned taxi companies from operating within its bounds.
The decision, reached at the close of a nearly five-hour-long public hearing broadcast on Santa Monica Public Radio, came after dozens of taxi drivers rallied outside City Hall to demand a fair process. It will impact some 300 families, leaving scores of Armenian-American cab owners and operators unemployed.
The rally, organized by the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and the Armenian National Committee of America Western Region (ANCA-WR), sought to raise awareness of the issue and delay the vote until a more transparent study could be conducted of the franchise ordinance.
During the rally, taxi drivers and supporters held a picket line in protest of the process, crowding into the city hall chamber after an hour to participate in the public portion of the Council’s proceedings on the matter.
The City Council opened the session with a reading of a study conducted on the issue by a panel of staff representatives from various city departments. Following the staff recommendation, the Council opened the floor to public comments. More than 50 people spoke about the heated measure, signifying the high level of controversy surrounding the ordinance.
Speaking to the City Council, AYF Executive Director Serouj Aprahamian and ANCA-WR Board Member Nora Hovsepian underscored the community’s grave concern with the city’s exclusion of every Armenian-owned cab company.
“With one vote, the City Council of Santa Monica has knowingly kicked out all of its Armenian-owned and operated companies onto the street,” said Aprahamian, echoing the sentiment of dozens of Armenian cab drivers who pleaded with the City Council to reconsider their position.
“In these tough economic times, they unflinchingly moved forward with a decision that undercuts an entire community, without even bothering to question the flawed nature of what it is they were voting on,” Aprahamian said, adding that the AYF studied the city report and found major inconsistencies, concerns and considerably little local preference.
Arsen Hakinian, was among the many cab operators who spoke that night. He warned the Franchise ordinance would cause a “huge unemployment” crisis for the city’s taxi drivers, while bringing outside cabs into the city. Another opponent, representing the United Independent Taxi Company, described the franchise study as “not fair or representative of reality.”
“The city says it loves mom and pop stores but is moving to allow only 5 monster companies to operate,” said another concerned resident of the city.
For Vrej Alvandyan, the President of Beverly Hills Cab Co., the need to refranchise wasn’t the problem. Rather, he said, he couldn’t see the logic of the process. “We have had franchises here for decades,” he said. “The purpose of refranchising is to improve the quality of the fleet not destroy it.”
Despite the overwhelming opposition being communicated by a majority of the people speaking on the issue, the City Council moved forward with its vote without addressing the concerns raised.
The ordinance will take effect in January 2011 and will limit the number of cab companies allowed to operate in the city to only five, though thirteen submitted applications for a franchise. The companies granted rights are Bell Cab, Independent Taxi Owners Association, Metro Cab Company, Taxi! Taxi! and Yellow Cab franchises to operate within the city.
Thirteen different companies applied for the franchise rights. Of the five selected, three are not even local, while all five local Armenian-owned companies were denied franchises. The ruling is a cause for concern of discrimination among the now out-of-work cab drivers.
For the last several months, the City Council has been considering which taxicab companies will be allowed to operate within city limits. The issue had become a source of controversy and protest, especially among Armenian taxi companies who criticized the selection process as being discriminatory and unfair.
“It is unfortunate that the city council has decided to move forward with their decision, despite our concerns and support towards the taxi drivers fighting this ordinance,” said Aleena Sivazlian, one of the AYF members who organized the rally. “This issue will not be forgotten or left alone. We will continue to fight the ordinance with whatever means are available to us.”