The Bruising Fight Over New York’s Next Taxi Chief

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For months, tensions have mounted between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council over how to respond to a crisis in the taxi industry that has bankrupted hundreds of drivers and led thousands more to the brink of ruin.

The battle claimed a casualty late Monday: Mr. de Blasio withdrew his nominee for the next leader of the agency overseeing the industry. The move came just days after a contentious Council hearing in which some members accused the nominee, Jeffrey D. Roth, of sidestepping tough questions about the city’s role in the crisis.

A mayoral spokesman described the delay as temporary, saying the administration planned to build support among Council members, who must approve the appointment, before resubmitting the nomination.

But it is extremely rare for a mayor to shelve an appointment, and opponents quickly declared victory.

“The stakes are too high, and the status quo is no longer acceptable,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from the Bronx who has been critical of the nomination.

The fight marked a sharp escalation in a debate that began after a New York Times series, published in May, detailed the financial devastation among drivers who took on massive debt under exploitative terms to buy taxi medallions, the city permits that allow drivers to own their own yellow cab.

Between 2002 and 2014, The Times reported, a handful of industry leaders artificially inflated medallion prices — driving them up to more than $1 million — and made huge profits by channeling thousands of purchasers into loans they could not afford. Prices then crashed, along with the life savings and futures of thousands of medallion owners.

Industry leaders denied any wrongdoing and blamed problems on the unexpected emergence of ride-hailing apps, such as Uber and Lyft.

The investigation also found that the city officials at the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the agency that oversees the industry, fed the frenzy by selling medallions at auctions and running advertisements saying medallions were “better than the stock market.”

Some City Council members have called on the T.L.C. to acknowledge a role in the crisis and for the city to help bail out drivers. But the mayor does not support a bailout, saying it would be too expensive.

Mr. de Blasio’s administration has begun enforcement proceedings against some of the taxi brokers who arranged medallion loans, arrested a debt collector, written new regulations, strengthened oversight of the industry, and waived up to $10 million in fees owed by drivers.

The mayor nominated Mr. Roth as Taxi and Limousine Commission chairman last month, citing his experience in the Army National Guard and in government, including two years as deputy commissioner for policy and external affairs at the T.L.C., after the crash in medallion prices.

“His depth of experience in city government will serve New Yorkers well as we continue to root out practices that prey on medallion owners, and help hardworking drivers feed their families,” the mayor said.

The nomination got off to a good start when the Taxi Workers Alliance, a prominent group representing medallion owners as well as drivers for taxi fleets, issued a statement praising Mr. Roth as sharp and engaging.

But at the confirmation hearing last week, problems quickly emerged during questioning about the possibility of a bailout, among other topics.

More from the original investigation

The council speaker, Corey Johnson, began the questioning by asking Mr. Roth to apologize, on behalf of the T.L.C., to medallion owners for the inflation of medallion values.

Mr. Roth turned to medallion owners in the audience and said, “My pledge to you is knowing there is suffering, I will work every single day to work with you, to work with the City Council, to find ways to alleviate suffering wherever possible.”

“But do you think that the T.L.C. leadership should apologize?” Mr. Johnson asked.

“Whether or not the T.L.C. leadership should apologize, I don’t know,” Mr. Roth said. “I know moving forward, I look forward to working with driver groups to see how we can rectify this.”

“I think the T.L.C. should apologize,” Mr. Johnson said.

Later, Mr. Johnson asked four times if the T.L.C. had properly regulated the medallion market before Mr. Roth conceded it had not. Then, after the nominee sidestepped multiple questions about legislation that the Council had drafted in response to the crisis, the speaker paused, dropped his head in his hands and groaned into his microphone.

“We need more specifics here today,” he said. “We need to be more specific, given the crisis that we’re facing.”

After the hearing, another councilman, Mark Treyger, a Democrat from Brooklyn, said the day had left more questions than answers.

Even Bhairavi Desai, founder of the Taxi Workers Alliance, which had praised Mr. Roth, criticized his appearance, saying the mayor should have let him speak more freely.

The Council then scrapped a vote that had been planned for Tuesday, leaving little time before the nomination was going to expire on Friday.

The mayor’s decision means the acting director of the T.L.C., Bill Heinzen, will remain in place for now. Mr. Heinzen also has a rocky relationship with the City Council after a contentious hearing last month.

On Tuesday, the mayor’s office declined to say when it would resubmit Mr. Roth’s nomination, and the City Council declined to say whether it would consider the nomination. Still, a spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio expressed confidence in the selection.

“We still believe this is the best man for the job,” said the spokeswoman, Freddi Goldstein. “And I think if we work with the Council a bit longer, then they will see that.”

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