WASHINGTON -- The D.C. Taxicab Commission forbid a Washington cab driver from speaking at a public meeting Wednesday because he didn't provide written testimony in advance. A commissioner later said the body was enforcing this unwritten rule because "some of the drivers have difficulty with our language."
A Youtube video uploaded by the Teamsters, the union now representing about 1,800 of Washington's roughly 6,000 cabbies, shows driver Beretek Haile rising to read from a piece of paper, before he's quickly cut off by commission chairman Ron Linton.
"Any individual who is here that is going to address the commission must have a written statement, otherwise we will not take your statement or have you at the podium," Linton says.
Haile then holds up the statement in his hand.
"The written statement is for the commission," Linton says. "Where is the written statement? ... Without a written statement, you haven't met the rule."
Linton then says he's moving on to the next person.
Later in the video, commissioner Paul Cohn says the commission is requiring written testimony because many D.C. cabbies have a poor grasp of English. A lot of the city's drivers are immigrants from Ethiopia and elsewhere.
"The reason we are asking for written testimony is because a lot of our cab drivers have difficulty with our language," Cohn says. "It's very difficult for us to understand some of the people who testify. It's easier for us to read along."
In a statement, the Teamsters called the stipulation an "illegal, discriminatory requirement."
Linton told HuffPost on Thursday that requiring written testimony isn't a formal rule, but the commission reserves the right to enforce it as an "administrative decision." He said the commission generally asks that speakers who plan to use the full five minutes allowed during the public comment period submit a copy of their testimony beforehand.
"A good many of those who address the commission are extremely difficult to understand," Linton said. "It's not been anything that we've made a hard-and-fast rule out of."
As for the charge that it's discriminatory, Linton said the commission was merely trying to "establish order in there."
"These are not people who willingly follow rules," he said of the often rambunctious hearings. "They have a history of standing up and interrupting." (People can be heard chanting in the background in the Teamsters' video.)
Later in the video, longtime D.C. driver Nathan Price takes the podium and chides the commission for cutting off Beretek. "I speak clear and have enough English to convey my thoughts of myself and my fellow drivers," Price says to applause.
Price is then told he can proceed without written testimony because his "voice is very strong."
Asked why the rule wasn't enforced on Price, Linton said it was just easier to let him continue. "When you have as volatile an audience as you have there, and an individual such as Mr. Price who believes he has a certain standing, it's simpler to let him go ahead and do it," Linton said.
According to Washingtonian's Benjamin Freed, the meeting Wednesday quickly devolved into chaos when dozens of drivers were denied speaking time. Linton's decision to end the meeting early due to "outbursts from disgruntled cabbies" brought shouts of "shame on you!"
"Many more drivers who couldn’t make it past security were left to stand outside in the cold chanting with Teamsters representatives," Freed reported.
Many of the District's cabbies are infuriated about new regulations requiring them to modernize their cabs. They've had to install new rooftop lights on their vehicles -- to the tune of about $450, they say -- and drivers who haven't updgraded yet have been getting ticketed by the city since the Nov. 1 deadline.
Their disgruntlement has provided an opening for Teamsters organizers, who've helped launch a new cabbie association in the city. The drivers can't formally unionize since they're independent drivers and not direct employees of a company, but they can enjoy the backing and resources of the union.