OC Taxi Operators Apologize To Save Businesses

OCEAN CITY – Satisfied with a public apology, including a retraction of less than flattering statements made about them in the media, the Ocean City Mayor and Council on Monday agreed to forego debarment proceedings for two taxi business owners involved in a perceived fraudulent sale of a taxi medallion.

For much of Monday’s lengthy hearing on the suspect transaction, it appeared a debarment proceeding for the cab companies involved, Memory Lane Transportation Inc., trading as Classic Taxi, and Century Taxi, was imminent. In the end, however, the elected officials agreed to avoid a debarment hearing if the cab owners involved in the transaction publicly apologized during the meeting.

Before they voted on the motion to forgive, if not necessarily forget, the council amended the motion to also require an official retraction of comments made by Classic Taxi owner Ray Godman to this newspaper last week, which included calling the elected officials “greedy bastards.”

Ironically, it was Councilman Doug Cymek who set in motion the public apology solution well over an hour after the heated debate on the issue. At the outset of the hearing, it was Cymek who pushed for a debarment hearing on the offending cab company owners. Debarment is a punitive process that includes several options, the most extreme of which is banning the offending company or companies from ever doing business with the town again.

“I’m not willing to let this end with the forfeiture of the medallion,” said Cymek. “If it’s appropriate to do it tonight, I’d like to look into debarment proceedings. I don’t see any other opportunity to move forward with a debarment process.”

However, although not entirely satisfied with the explanations provided by Classic Taxi owners Godman and Christy Freeman, and Century Taxi owner Ken Hovance, along with their attorneys, Cymek in the end suggested the public apology solution.

“I’d like to amend my earlier motion,” he said. “If your clients come forward and make a public apology, we can end this tonight.”

Cymek’s motion was amended again by Councilwoman Mary Knight, who wanted an official retraction of the “greedy bastards” comment made by Godman in The Dispatch last week. With that said, Freeman and Godman approached the dais and apologized.

“We’re sorry it turned out this way,” said Godman. “It was never our intent to defraud the city. Despite what you might think, we’re not a bunch of liars. We’re truly sorry it came to this.”

Godman also made good on his promise to officially retract his disparaging remarks about the elected officials in the press last week. On Tuesday morning, he hand-delivered a formal retraction to The Dispatch, which can be found in the Letters to the Editor section of this week’s paper.

For his part, Hovance was also quick to take advantage of the public apology option, especially with the prospect of a debarment proceeding hanging over his head.

“It was definitely never my intent to defraud the city,” he said. “I was put in a very bad situation. It was extremely important that I get this vehicle on the road. I have to be very careful. I am very, very, very sorry this ever happened.”

From the beginning, conflicting stories about the transfer of the medallion led elected officials to believe Classic Taxi and Century Taxi had found a loophole in the new system at best or defrauded the city at worst. After the lengthy hearing on Monday, it is still not entirely clear how the transfer went down.

What is known is that Classic Taxi won the bid for medallion 130 when the medallions were auctioned on March 1 and put down the requisite 10-percent, or $150, up front. Last week, Classic Taxi owners went to City Hall and paid the balance on medallion, or $1,350, before turning around and immediately selling it to Hovance for $1. Apparently, Hovance provided the $1,350 owed on the medallion before purchasing it from Classic Taxi.

The city took issue with the seemingly shaky sale for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was the town’s 25-cent transfer fee.

“They tried to beat the system,” said Councilman Lloyd Martin, who presided over the meeting in the absence of Council President Joe Mitrecic. “They asked us to create a system to make their industry better, and two weeks into it, they tried to find a way around it.”

For Cymek, the whole transaction went beyond a simple skirting of the system. Cymek said the transaction was bad enough, but the way it went down and was flaunted in the press was a direct attempt to embarrass the council.

“Your clients were trying to mock the system,” he said. “They orchestrated a media event to do that. Even the bill of sale says one American dollar. They just kept mocking and mocking.”

However, attorney Dave Gaskill, who represents Classic Taxi, and attorney Paul Abu-Zaid, who represents Century Taxi, attempted to explain it was never the intent of the two parties to mock the system. Gaskill explained Classic Taxi put down the deposit on medallion 130 with the intention of affixing it to a Cadillac it was working on in its shop.

When a rear windshield ordered for the vehicle turned out to be the wrong size, it became apparent Godman and Freeman could not get the car inspected and on the road before the deadline to use or lose the medallion, so they agreed to sell it to Hovance for one dollar, provided he pay the balance owed for it.

However, the medallion was never affixed to one of Hovance’s cabs. Instead it was forfeited to the city earlier on Monday. In the end, the town got medallion 130 back to resell at a future date, and kept the $1,500 paid for it by Classic Taxi and/or Century Taxi, which is still not entirely clear. Gaskill hammered that point home over and over on Monday night.

“I really don’t think there are any facts that aren’t known,” said Gaskill. “Where everyone stands right now, my client paid $1,500 to the city, which they lost, and Mr. Hovance has a car up and running, but no medallion. The city has the $1,500 and the medallion back, which it can sell again for a minimum of $2,000. Everybody on this side of the table has been hurt financially to some degree. The city is in the best position.”

Abu-Zaid said there was nothing sinister about the sale of the medallion and blamed the controversy on lay people trying to interpret a complicated city ordinance. Gaskill took it a step further, however, saying the sale was an attempt by the two parties to find a way to make the ordinance work to their benefit.

“Some of you feel the intention was to maybe subvert what you tried to do,” he said. “Citizens have every right to do that, to test the limits of the laws and ordinances. What ever you pass, we as citizens have a right to sit down and figure out how to get around it. That’s the American way.”

Mayor Rick Meehan likened the situation to an individual swiping beer from a convenience store, then offering to pay for it when they got caught. Councilman Jim Hall later referenced the mayor’s comments.

“They got caught,” said Jim Hall. “They’re outside the 7-Eleven with the two six packs of beer they just took and now they’re willing to pay for them.”

What They Said …

“This is just a fraud. This tears at my heart because this is exactly what we wanted to avoid. … I’m really disappointed. I thought both parties would come in here tonight and apologize for trying to circumvent the system.”

Councilmman Jim Hall

 “I could with a straight face in a courtroom argue what they did was not fraudulent. Any citizen can try to make the law go to their best benefit. I think a debarment proceeding is inappropriate in this case.”

Classic Taxi Attorney Dave Gaskill

“All of those things were done in good faith. Others have been transferred and it has been done correctly, done in the spirit of what the ordinance is all about. Certainly, selling a medallion for one dollar is not in the spirit of the ordinance. … Sometimes, people cause pain for themselves. In this case, it was self-inflicted. Sometimes, you have to take responsibility for your own actions.”

Mayor Rick Meehan

“I don’t think the parties should be treated the same way. He did not have the intent to defraud the city. He got caught up in this. I don’t think that warrants a debarment.”

Century Taxi Attorney Paul Abu-Zaid

“I’m more concerned with the integrity of those who played by the rules. This one-dollar sale was a red flag. It was stupid.”

Councilwoman Mary Knight

“Ms. Freeman tried to make a mockery of this council. She did some things that were totally uncalled for.”

Councilman Doug Cymek

“I was hoping to hear the truth. I wanted to be lenient because this is small business.”

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas

“I feel like they abused the system. People do it all the time and don’t get caught. This time they got caught because a red flag went up.”

Councilman Lloyd Martin

“I came in thinking the price that has already been paid is probably enough, but as this conversation continues, if my colleagues want to move forward with a debarment proceeding, I will support that.”

Councilman Joe Hall