Immigrant taxi drivers sue Portland over airport policy

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PORTLAND — A dozen immigrant taxi drivers are suing the city over a new policy that will require them to renew their airport cab permits in person.

The drivers claim the change will make it more difficult for them to maintain their licenses to operate at Portland International Jetport, a coveted market that is capped and closed to new applicants.

The lawsuit, announced at a press conference on Monday morning on the front steps of City Hall, asks the Cumberland County Superior Court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the new rule from taking effect on Jan. 1.

Sigmund Schutz, the attorney representing the taxi drivers, said the new policy is illegal under Maine’s law allowing power of attorney. But a city official said such third-party permit transfers are not allowed under city code.

About two years ago, the city capped the number of taxi cabs allowed to operated at the Jetport at 40 and grandfathered an additional 10 drivers. No new permits can be issued until the number drops to below 40.

Nearly all 49 drivers currently permitted to work the jetport are immigrants, Schutz said.

Jama Farah, an independent taxi driver, said immigrant drivers often leave the city to visit families and friends in the U.S. and Africa. He said cab drivers must renew permits twice a year, but sometimes they are out of town for family emergencies, or to visit relatives overseas.

Farah said the city never contacted taxi drivers to tell them about the change, which will affect many immigrants.

“It was some sort of abrupt decision that was made,” he said. “It will make it harder for them to earn a living.”

Schutz also said the city does not allow taxi drivers to renew their permits in advance. He said one driver, who is now in Africa visiting his daughter for the first time, could lose his permit to work at the airport.

Included in the lawsuit documents are affidavits from drivers who rely on powers of attorney to secure their permits. Some note the difficulty of finding other work without being fluent in English, and their need to make emergency visits to families in foreign refugee camps.

Abdinour Hannan, a Somali immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1998, said he visited his family in a refugee camp in Kenya. His 80-year-old mother was sick, so he stayed an additional eight months to take care of her. But before he left, he appointed a power of attorney to renew his permit.

“The use of power of attorney makes it possible for me to keep my business and travel to see my family,” Hannan said.

City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city notified the drivers it was reviewing the rules.

Clegg said the city met with taxi drivers in May to discuss a variety of concerns, including power of attorney “transfers” of jetport permits.

Clegg said there were only a couple power of attorney transfers the first year the airport cap was in place. But last year the city received 10, which prompted a  review of the policy.

“It wasn’t anything we had seen before,” Clegg said. “When we saw 10, that’s when I think it hit that point where said we really need to look at this and make sure we’re handling this appropriately.”

Clegg said the city never saw transfers until the airport cap was imposed. After further review, the city concluded the transfers were not allowed under city code.

“These are illegal transfers,” Clegg said.

Charles Bragdon, who works for ASAP Taxi, said he hasn’t heard any complaints from other drivers about the city’s position.

“People usually come to me with taxi issues because I am politically involved,” said Bragdon, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in November.

Bragdon said drivers are more upset the city does not allow more cab drivers to be stationed at the airport. Only designated drivers can park there, while other cab companies can pick up airport passengers, for an additional fee, if they are called, he said.

The existing transfer system risks abuse, he said.

“I think (the change) is a good idea because there are a lot of taxi drivers that aren’t actually the ones that have the license,” Bragdon said. “They’re just not getting caught, because they’re not required to come in and get their license in person.”

Clegg, meanwhile, said the city is willing to work with drivers who want to renew their licenses, but cannot do so in person.

“We would certainly be willing to work with them if they communicate with us in advance,” she said. “We would be flexible.”

Schutz said he hopes and expects the lawsuit will move forward quickly.

“If the court acts soon, that will save at least one of the permit holders from cutting short a trip to Africa, where he is visiting his daughter,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

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Attorney Sigmund Schutz speaks at press conference on Monday in front of Portland City Hall, where he announced that a dozen immigrant cab drivers are suing the city over its new permit policy.

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