City Council on Monday rejected the new airport director's plan to fix taxi service at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, derailing his efforts to get new cabs there by Christmas.
Ricky Smith wanted to hire Cleveland-based Ace Taxi to run outbound service at Hopkins, a plan that he said would reduce the glut of cabs at the airport and deliver better service.
But council said no, citing concerns that an agreement with one company would put some of the city's other cab companies out of business.
Instead, it approved with a 12-8 vote a substitute plan, which asks the airport to manage cab service itself or hire an independent management company. Under either model, a limited number of permits would be sold to cab companies that want to do business at the airport.
Smith said that he will explore those options but that he is concerned neither will give the airport the control it needs to improve poor cab service at Hopkins or raise as much money as his plan.
Ace proposed charging a $2.50-per-trip fee and passing the money on to the city. Smith said the new fees could raise more than $450,000, based on 500 trips per day.
He is also uncertain if the less-dramatic changes proposed by council will result in the kind of makeover he thinks taxi service needs.
"It's all about changing the image and reputation of this city," Smith said.
One thing Smith said he knows for sure: "There's no way we'll have [new cab service] in place by Christmas."
The rebuff of Smith's plan marks the first time council has rejected a major initiative by Mayor Frank Jackson since he took office in January.
Cab companies and their drivers lobbied hard for council to reject the Ace deal, saying an exclusive contract would dissolve some of the city's seven taxi businesses and damage others.
Mari Lee, office manager of USA Taxi, called council's substitute plan a good thing because it leaves the airport open to more drivers. She said many of the company's drivers talked of leaving Cleveland if Ace was awarded an exclusive contract.
Kevin Kelley, chairman of council's Aviation and Transportation Committee, said he believes there is a more equitable way to improve cab service and raise revenue at Hopkins.
Many of his fellow committee members agreed, although the full council was divided.
Councilman Mike Dolan, who represents the West Park neighborhood, called Smith's plan an "over-aggressive solution" to the airport taxi problem.
Debate became so heated that at one point during a committee hearing Monday afternoon, Council President Martin J. Sweeney moved the meeting from a committee room to his office. A majority of council members attended. Sweeney said the session was held in his office to address a procedural question, but he acknowledged that there was discussion about the issue and the way council would vote.
Ohio open-meetings laws require council meetings to be public when legislation is being discussed and when the majority of members are present.
Despite the debate, Smith still favors the proposed deal with Ace. Under the agreement, no other company would be permitted to pick up passengers at Hopkins.
The agreement also promised a new fleet of 75 taxis, painted white with an airport logo and global positioning systems to help drivers find their way.
Council left a door open for Smith to still consider an exclusive contract with Ace or another local cab company. But Kelley made it clear that was not council's preference.
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The plan to hire one company to manage taxi service has been controversial since Smith proposed it over the summer.
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