Glowing profile of Tracey Cook in Toronto Star leaves industry observers shaking their heads
by Mike Beggs
The protracted wait for executive director Tracey Cook’s overdue review of the new Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw appears to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards’ response times on taxi-related items.
On October 27, Councillor Cesar Palacio, chair of the Licensing and Standards Committee appeared at the City’s Committee Of Adjustment to speak to this issue.
“The councillors can’t get responses from Staff either, and there are presently well over 200 directives sitting with Staff to be answered involving taxis interests -- with some dating back to 2000,” observes veteran owner/operator Gerry Manley.
What’s more, the MLS’s own web site lends credence to longstanding cab industry complaints that they are all too often paid only lip service at city hall.
Manley points to a row of category boxes lined up under the heading of MLS Customer Service Standards. And here you find damning data.
Click on the category for Fences, and the MLS lists an investigation time of within five business days. For Illegal Dumping, the turnaround time is even less – 48 hours.
Manley notes that, in a total of 36 categories MLS investigation and compliance times vary from 20 minutes to 60 days, “demonstrating that the MLS has set response times for these categories that are reasonable.” He wonders why, if Staff is addressing these categories within these time frames, why are there well over 200 taxi-related inquiries still on the desks at MLS?
“Staff not responding in a timely fashion to the councillors’, and industry members’ requests is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedom-Equality Rights, and we are being discriminated against,” Manley alleges.
“Since MLS Staff is mandated to answer to Council, I believe it is well overdue that Toronto Council direct Staff to respond to all taxi industry requests for information and bylaw action -- especially on the VFH bylaw,” says Manley.
What’s more, he believes an investigation into how the MLS is adhering to its mandate is “well overdue, as their competency in performing their duties is certainly in question (when it comes to regulating the taxi industry).”
Mississauga plate owner Peter Pellier agrees that Manley’s research, “raises a number of serious questions that cry out for an independent investigation.”
“Under the City of Toronto Act, Toronto has become a fiefdom, with full autonomy to act as it pleases. This has resulted in an appalling level of arrogance among elected officials and staff,” he observes.
Manley, and Lucky 7 Taxi owner Lawrence Eisenberg alike, took issue with a glowing profile of Cook in the October 28 edition of The Toronto Star, headlined, “The Woman Who May Have The Hardest Job In Toronto”. The article noted she oversees a staff of 470, which enforces more than 30 different bylaws, at a salary of $220,000 a year.
For starters, Manley wonders how Cook had time to be interviewed by the Star, when in the 16 months since the VFH Bylaw was enacted, neither she nor her staff have responded to even one of the inquiries surrounding the new code?
“With a staff of 470 working under her, how can you justify responding in timely fashion to many inquiries (but not to those related to cab issues)?” he asks.
He suggests Cook and her staff hear, but don’t heed taxi industry input.
“That’s because they come (to meetings) with a hidden agenda, and many things at city hall are adopted or put into motion under the table,” he alleges.
Eisenberg discounts the comments of Councillor Glenn de Baeremaeker, who praised Cook as a sterling bureaucrat, who, “gives you her honest opinion and has no hidden agenda”, and has “a strong moral compass.”
“He has sat on the Licensing and Standards Committee for six years (so he should be well aware of the MLS’s lack of accountability on this issue),“ he alleges.
While Cook sees the taxi-versus-Uber issue as “an important balancing act”, at a raucous April 2016 Council meeting (when the new bylaw was approved) she was derided as “a flip-flopper”, and “bipolar” by taxi industry deputants.
She initially opposed the renegade ridesharing company, and led the City’s unsuccessful 2014 attempt to obtain a court injunction to block Uber from operating. However, she told The Star she “turned a corner” on this issue, after attending an Ontario Chamber Of Commerce seminar on the “Sharing Economy”, and, “realized the Mayor (John Tory) was right.”
Manley sees it slightly differently.
“She appeared to be swayed into reversing her position on Uber, after being pressured by the Mayor, and attending (that) seminar,” he alleges.
He notes that, according to the City’s own numbers, Uber X completes more than 60,000 runs per day – and paying 30 cents per run, that amounts to approximately $18,000 per day, $125,000 per week, or $6.5 million per year in revenues going into MLS coffers.
“Does anyone of ordinary care and judgement really believe that the City is truly looking for a fair and level playing field between Uber and the taxi industry?” he asks.
He notes that, Uber and the cab industry’s combined annual licensing and trip fees come to between $16 million and $18 million per year and he believes the exorbitant fees may well violate strict cost recovery guidelines laid down by the province).
“Herein, lies the real reason behind how Uber and the taxi industry are being legislated, and it has nothing to do with fairness, public service, or safety,” he alleges.
“And because of the lack of knowledge, or caring by politicians and bureaucrats at Toronto City Hall… there are 10,000 members of the Toronto taxi industry hanging on the edge of an abyss.”
Pellier concurs that in collecting licensing fees and trip fees from both taxis and Uber, the City of Toronto now has it, “coming and going”.
“With $6.7 million flowing into the City coffers annually from Uber, a number that will no doubt climb over time, the bean counters are surely salivating, as the cost to regulate Uber is virtually nil,” he adds. “In light of such a healthy revenue stream, the taxi industry is rapidly becoming irrelevant to Mr. Tory & Co.”