GLENDALE—For many Armenians who have immigrated to Los Angeles, driving a taxi has become one of the few ways of squeezing out a living. But for Armenian companies and drivers in Santa Monica, this source of employment may soon be cut off.
“They are trying to push us out of the city,” said Elen Poghosyan, owner of VIP Yellow Cab. “Anybody with an Armenian last name is automatically being denied a taxi franchise in Santa Monica.”
As part of an overhaul of the taxi system in Santa Monica, a committee of City Hall staff recently released a recommendation calling for only five companies to be allowed to operate in the city. Out of these five companies, none are Armenian—despite the fact that at least six of the thirteen who originally submitted proposals to receive a franchise were Armenian-owned or operated.
“How are we being denied a franchise when we are much more experienced, financially stable, and locally-based than most of the five companies the city is recommending?” asks David Bagramian of Pacific Yellow Cab. “The only conclusion we can draw is that they’re trying to get rid of us.”
Upon revelation of the city’s recommendation, taxi companies and drivers staged a protest in front of the Santa Monica City Hall on June 22, the night the Council was supposed to vote on the recommendation. The demonstrators, majority of whom were Armenian, marched and chanted holding picket signs reading “Give Opportunity to Local Companies” and “Give Us Our Jobs Back.”
“They are giving the franchises to companies based in Los Angeles; companies that already have the right to pick up and work outside of Santa Monica,” said one of the protestors interviewed by USArmenia TV News. “Meanwhile, here in the city, over 250 of us are being left without work.”
Shortly after the permit was obtained for the protest, the Santa Monica City Council decided to postpone their decision until September, claiming that procedural issues required that they do so. Protestors and many observers believe that it was the demonstration which compelled officials inside to hold off on their action and postpone their vote. Even after the item was pulled from the agenda, more than 100 concerned taxi drivers and community members showed up for the demonstration.
In addition to the protest, many cab companies voiced their criticism of the city’s evaluation process. Bill Gray of Santa Monica Community Cab, one of the companies that bid for the franchise, was quoted in the Santa Monica Daily Press as saying, “It seemed like they just subjectively picked them and that’s really disturbing.”
In response to this large outcry, a memo was released by the city revealing the total scores each company received. However, this document only raised further questions about how the companies were given these cumulative rankings. The surprisingly high scores given to some of the companies—considering the criteria the city itself specified—only raised further suspicion of bias and foul play.
For example, the city initially said it was mandatory for all companies bidding for the franchise to have a computerized dispatch system. However, the rankings show that this was weighted as only three percent of the overall score. At least two of the recommended companies have no history of operating this equipment at all and are either in the process of purchasing it or have promised to do so. Meanwhile, several of the companies that were denied the franchise have had such dispatches in place for more than 15 years. In other areas such as financial viability, local preference, and experience, we again see some of the five companies that were recommended falling short of the ones that were excluded.
The City Hall staff has, thus far, been reluctant to give any further explanations for these inconsistencies or reveal the itemized score sheets of their rankings. Such concealment by the City has only reinforced accusations that what is really at play here is discrimination against certain companies based on ethnicity, rather than merit.
For the more than 250 Armenian taxi drivers whose jobs are on the line, a great deal is at stake. Being put out of work in these trying economic times will not only negatively affect them and their families but, indeed, the Armenian community as a whole. It should be remembered that many of those who drive taxis in Los Angeles also send money back to their families in Armenia, compounding the impact of being denied to operate even further.
As the situation stands now, the City Council will have final authority over how many franchises will be awarded and which companies will be allowed to operate in the city. They are scheduled to vote on the matter in September.
Many of the taxi drivers being denied the right to operate their cabs are vowing to continue their struggle until the franchises are distributed fairly and transparently. “We will stay resilient and continue our fight until justice is served,” concluded Poghosyan.