Somali taxi drivers say new Portland policy aims to shut them down

Portland taxi cab driver Jama Farah addresses reporters Monday in front of City Hall, where attorney Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty announced plans to file a restraining order against the city over a new policy requiring cab owners to renew their licenses in person. Schutz, who is representing nearly a dozen taxi drivers and owners, said his clients should be able to reapply through agents who have been granted power of attorney over their affairs.
Portland taxi cab driver Jama Farah addresses reporters Monday in front of City Hall, where attorney Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty announced plans to file a restraining order against the city over a new policy requiring cab owners to renew their licenses in person. Schutz, who is representing nearly a dozen taxi drivers and owners, said his clients should be able to reapply through agents who have been granted power of attorney over their affairs. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 05, 2011, at 6:28 p.m.
In a late morning press conference Monday, attorney Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty describes a temporary restraining order he planned to file against the city of Portland on behalf of 12 taxi drivers, who are aggrieved by a new policy requiring them to apply for their licenses to operate at the Portland International Jetport in person.
In a late morning press conference Monday, attorney Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty describes a temporary restraining order he planned to file against the city of Portland on behalf of 12 taxi drivers, who are aggrieved by a new policy requiring them to apply for their licenses to operate at the Portland International Jetport in person. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — A group of Somali immigrant taxicab drivers and owners is asking the court to block a new policy members believe is intended to drive them out of business.

“Unless a court intervenes by Dec. 31, most of my clients will lose their … ability to make a living and provide for their families,” said attorney Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty, the law firm representing 12 cabdrivers, during a news conference held Monday morning on the steps of City Hall. “We think the purpose of the change is to put some of these taxi drivers out of business.”

At issue is a new policy Schutz said was announced on Nov. 2 by Portland International Jetport Director Paul Bradbury requiring cab owners and drivers to renew in person their licenses to operate at the airport.

Schutz said the new policy “abruptly and illegally” attempts to override the state’s power of attorney law. Many of his clients, Schutz said, return frequently to their native Africa to tend to family needs and have in the past relied on appointed attorneys to file license renewal paperwork for them while they are away.

“It’s the law,” said taxi driver Jama Farah at the news conference Monday. “It’s not just something we’re making up.”

A city spokeswoman responded Monday that the city intends to work with cab owners and drivers who are affected by the policy to help prevent anybody who intends to keep driving taxis from losing their permits to do so.

The jetport, while is situated mostly in South Portland, is owned by the city of Portland.

The city has a moratorium on issuing new nonreserved airport access taxi permits until the number of permit holders drops below 40, and 49 such permits are held by Somali immigrants, Schutz said. By imposing a policy that makes it difficult for those immigrants to renew their licenses while refusing to issue new licenses, the attorney said the city is effectively driving the Somali drivers out of the business.

Preti Flaherty attorneys on Monday filed a temporary restraining order in Cumberland County Superior Court to block the policy from being implemented.

Schutz called attention in particular to the case of Farhan Abdi, who was separated from his first wife during the chaos of civil war in Somalia nearly 20 years ago, but later learned she had his daughter. This year, Abdi finally returned to Africa to meet his now-adult daughter and her children for the first time, but risks losing his airport access permit if he doesn’t cut his reunion visit short and return to file his renewal application in person.

The windows in which the paperwork for six-month renewals must be filed come during the months of June and December, and Abdi has been out of the country thus far this month.

Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said the city has yet to see the lawsuit filed by Preti Flaherty and said she cannot comment on it specifically. But she said the city intends to be flexible with drivers facing extenuating circumstances in its allowance of when the applications can be filed.

“For people who have to leave the country due to a death in the family, or a wedding, or other situations, we’re flexible,” Clegg said. “If they notify us, we’re willing to work with people, assuming that when they come back, they’re intending to fulfill that permit and provide that service.”

She also defended the 40-permit cap on airport access papers as proposed two years ago by jetport officials, who told the city’s Transportation Committee the airport doesn’t have the space or demand for more than that. Clegg said the city grandfathered permit holders who already had been working at the site, a number that today remains at 49.

She said power of attorney applications began increasing after the city placed a limitation on new airport access permits.

“This was the right number,” Clegg said. “It allows us to have safe accommodations for the taxi drivers and the travelers.”

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