Photo by dominiccampbell on Flickr.

The DC Taxicab Commission has a problem dealing with reporters, but that’s far from the only problem with the Commission. Does it need reform, or should it be abolished entirely?

Even before the current video imbroglio, there was widespread agreement that the Taxi Commission was broken. It simply skipped many meetings. It’s supposed to set taxi policy, but Mayor Fenty took power away from the board.

Now, all of their decisions must go through a mayoral appointee who often simply doesn’t implement their directives. That means a board is making decisions but lacks the power to carry them out.

The commission has 3 industry members, but currently they are representatives from hospitality industries, not from drivers directly. People differ on whether the taxi drivers should be directly represented, but at the moment they’re in limbo, where they’re supposed to have representation but don’t.

Tommy Wells was already going to be tackling the Taxi Commission problems even before the recording incident. What should the Council do?

The more I watch DC government, the more I feel that these boards and commissions don’t work. They have a significant role in setting policy, but the last two mayors, at least, haven’t appointed people with an eye toward specific policy directions. Instead, they appoint people they know personally or big campaign donors.

Mayor Fenty, for instance, was widely considered more friendly to development interests than anti neighbors, and the actions of his Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development certainly reflected such a bias, often to an extreme. But when making appointments to the Zoning Commission, a board with enormous influence over development (arguably more than DMPED), he didn’t seem to consider this at all.

This divorces policy too far from our elected officials. The Council or Mayor can set a policy direction for the city and voters can either elect or replace them because of it. But when policy is being made by people picked just for arbitrary reasons, there’s no link from the people to the policy.

Many commissions take a lot of time, but don’t pay members, dramatically limiting the range of people who can serve. Often that limits the field to either people with a professional interest in the issue, or retirees.

Government seems to work better when decisions are either made by the legislature, or by political appointees directly reporting to an elected executive. The elected legislators or executives might not always be very good, but at least people can throw them out of office if they’re doing a sufficiently bad job.

Perhaps instead of a Taxi Commission, the agency should report to the Mayor like most other agencies. In fact, 2 current DCTC members are also DDOT employees, Scott Kubly and Ralph Burns, from the division overseeing the Circulator, streetcars and Capital Bikeshare. If the Mayor wants administration officials setting taxi policy, they could simply set it directly.

Should it be subsumed into an existing agency? The Taxicab Commission serves two roles. It sets taxi policy, such as fares and whether to limit supply with medallions. And it handles licensing and inspections for drivers.

The former function would best belong at DDOT. That agency already is setting transportation policy and can consider big picture issues like how to encourage taxis to serve areas of high demand and/or areas without good transit options. On the other hand, the latter function is closest to the current work of the DMV or DCRA.

DCTC’s responsibilities could be split, with DDOT setting policy and the DMV or DCRA handling licensing. However, having other split functions has created problems in the past. Traffic and parking tickets, for instance, are written by MPD or DPW and enforced by the DMV under regulations formulated by DDOT. That’s often created many problems where DDOT might set a rule but nobody enforces it, or tickets get written but nobody goes after drivers to collect the money.

If DDOT gets the job, it could create a whole large licensing role that DDOT hasn’t had to handle and might turn into a distraction. On the other hand, if all of the responsibility goes to DCRA, then they might not think creatively about policy. DCRA and the DMV is structured to grant and monitor permits, and could have an inherent orienation toward not changing much.

Or, DCTC could remain its own agency but without a commission, instead having all responsibilities handled by mayoral appointees subject to laws passed by Council. Finally, the commission could stay, perhaps with added power to carry out its own decisions.

What do you think would work best?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.