New Santa Monica Ordinance Leaves Armenian Cabbies Stranded

New Santa Monica Ordinance Leaves Armenian Cabbies Stranded

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SANTA MONICA, Calif..—Hundreds of Armenian taxi drivers here are in danger of losing their jobs, after the City Council last week approved a controversial ordinance limiting the number of taxi franchises in the city.

The ordinance was proposed after residents complained about high cab fees and poor customer service. A recent study also found that the large number of taxis was preventing the city from reducing  vehicle emissions. The ordinance, which goes into effect in January 2011, grants only five companies—Bell Cab, Independent Taxi Owners Association, Metro Cab Company, Taxi! Taxi! and Yellow Cab—the right to operate within Santa Monica.

Thirteen companies had applied for the taxi licenses. None of the six companies owned or operated by Armenian-Americans were selected, a decision that is expected to have an economic impact on some 300 families.

The drivers and Armenian-American organizations say the ordinance is unfair.

“We have suspicions of discrimination,” said Nora Hovsepian, an attorney and a member of the board of directors of the the Western region of the Armenian National Committee (ANC). “We’re not accusing anybody of anything right now, but the more information we get about the selection process, the more it gives credence to those suspicions.”

Serouj Aprahamian, executive director of  the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), was looking for transparency into the selection process.

“There’s no explanation that’s been given,” he said. “This is [the drivers'] livelihood. If they can’t work here, they have nowhere else to go.”

A large number of recent immigrants from Armenia are employed by taxi companies. Thirty-five percent of Yellow Cab’s drivers are of Armenian descent, according to Marco Soto, public affairs director for the Administrative Services Co-op, which represents Yellow Cab of Los Angeles.

Mesrop Injyan was one of the drivers protesting at City Hall and looking for answers. After winning a green card lottery, he immigrated to Los Angeles five years ago and started driving a cab.

“They are putting us out of work,” he said in an Armenian-language interview with Ianyan Mag, an independent Armenian publication. “We have been asking them what the selection criteria was, what basis the companies were selected on, and as of now we haven’t received an answer. It’s like if you’re playing basketball and the game ends, and you say, ‘This team wins, and this team loses,’ and I ask why, and you say, ‘That’s just the way it is.’”

The proposals were evaluated by a five-member inter-agency committee, including representatives from the city’s Finance Department, Office of Sustainability and the Environment, the Police Department and the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation Taxicab Regulation Division.

The criteria included the proposed business plan; fleet composition (the number of vehicles that met low-emission standards); local preference; character of the operators’ owners, including criminal records; discount fares for seniors, as well as driver training.

According to a memo issued after the City Council vote, “The evaluation committee was unaware of the specific race, ethnicity or nationality of individuals linked to specific taxicab companies until such race, ethnicity or nationality was pointed out by outside individuals and organizations subsequent to the evaluation process."

It wasn’t just Armenian-owned companies that felt they were being treated unfairly.

Euro Taxi, also denied a franchise, was represented by the Latino Business Association and South Bay Latino Chamber of Commerce, and strongly opposed the staff recommendation.

Ellen Poghosyan, president of V.I.P Yellow Cab, pleaded with the council to reconsider its decision: “Just give us a chance." She noted that V.I.P was the only company that served Santa Monica 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

has been employed as a taxi driver since he came to the United States with his parents eight years ago. Now 25 years old and a U.S. citizen, he predicts that the council’s decision will have disastrous results for Armenian families.

“The economy is so bad that you can’t even save money,” said Karapet Torosyan, who came to the U.S> eight years ago with his parents and works for V.I.P. “You’re working to barely support your family.”

Many Armenians chose the profession of taxi driving out of necessity.

“It doesn’t seem to me that there is anyone in our Armenian community who is happy driving a taxi, but people still have to work,” Injyan said. “It’s clear that this isn’t a very good job, but it’s what it is.”

“We came here to have a better life,” he added. “How can you survive in America without working?”