City: Review shows citations unwarranted
A group of French Quarter tour guides and cabbies marched, one by one, into a conference room on the seventh floor of City Hall on Friday afternoon, hoping to prove they are not a band of unruly scofflaws but victims of an overzealous and combative city regulatory agency.
They never got the chance.
As each one entered the conference room — packed with reporters, TV cameras and two members of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s public relations staff — a city representative read from a prepared statement.
“On behalf of the city, we request that the ticket be dismissed,” read Jared Munster, director of the Department of Safety and Permits, which includes the Taxicab Bureau. “Following our review of these incidents, it is our determination that the ticket is not justified.”
Each guide’s permit was returned to them, and the city refused to detail the evidence or charges against them, despite prodding from their attorney.
It was the latest twist in a saga that began just before Halloween. “Ghost tour” guides claimed that Taxicab Bureau investigators were harassing them and handing out unjustified tickets as they led groups outside the Royal Street home of Marie Delphine LaLaurie, a 19th century socialite and alleged serial killer. They hired attorney Tom Shlosman to send a cease-and-desist letter to the city.
But things only got worse: On Nov. 9, inspector Wilton Joiner tried to snatch Haunted History Tours guide Wendy Bosma’s permit for, he said, violating the law that requires tour groups to stay at least 50 feet apart. Bosma said she saw no other tours and refused.
What happened next led to protests and threats of lawsuits, the suspension of two inspectors and criminal charges against one, and a public reprimand from the mayor’s office.
On the street that night, in front of 28 tourists and their video cameras, Joiner allegedly wrenched Bosma’s arm behind her back and shoved her onto the hood of a car, leaving her arm bruised. He revoked her permit and wrote her a ticket.
The videos of the incident quickly spread across the internet. Other groups overseen by the bureau, such as cab drivers and buggy drivers, organized a protest outside City Hall against what they described as widespread bullying by inspectors. The Police Department booked Joiner on a count of simple battery. Both Joiner and inspector Ronnie Blake were suspended without pay. Every other inspector was placed on desk duty, and their Mace and handcuffs were seized by the city.
But the tickets they’d already issued had to be dealt with before a hearing officer at City Hall. Shlosman described all the previous proceedings as a “browbeating” and “kangaroo court.” Blake, he said, would sit on one side of the table, with Joiner on the other and the alleged culprit between them.
“The Taxicab Bureau is the judge, jury and executioner. It’s a joke. You don’t have a prayer,” said Sidney Smith, owner of Haunted History Tours, who has sat in on hearings several times. “I guess we’re going to have to bring the media with us every time we get a ticket.”
Blake and Joiner were not in attendance Friday afternoon.
The city was represented by Munster and an inspector from the bureau, who refused to give her name and held a piece of paper over her face to block her photo from being taken. The hearing officer, attorney Maria Auzenne, referred to her as “Ms. Martin.”
“Don’t say my name. I don’t want them to know my name,” the inspector told her.
Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Landrieu, also declined to identify the city employee.
First on the docket was Alliance Cab driver Emmanuel Esterlin, who signed an affidavit claiming Blake pepper-sprayed and handcuffed him Oct. 23 over a parking ticket. The charge against him was dismissed.
Shlosman wanted to ask questions about the charge. He inquired about videos of the incident in question. Munster acknowledged that one existed, but said he’d never seen it.
Shlosman attempted to ask the investigator, who was evidently present for the spraying and handcuffing, what she had seen.
Auzenne interjected. She said that because the charges were being dismissed there was nothing left to talk about.
“I think that you’re welcome to ask questions to the city after the hearing,” she said, but “I have nothing to hear. And I have no basis on which to actually entertain a hearing because they’re not prosecuting.”
Bosma was called in next.
Munster repeated the same statement, verbatim.
Bosma took her permit and returned to the waiting room.
Next came a tour guide named Jennifer Vallas, who, like Bosma, works for Haunted History Tours.
Joiner had said he took her license because she shouted a racial slur at a competing guide.
Vallas denied the accusation. She said she was in Mississippi on the day she was supposed to have shouted the slur. She said the guide in question told her he’d called the Taxicab Bureau to report a strange woman harassing him. He described her to Joiner as a woman with short, dark hair. Joiner told him it was probably Vallas.
Vallas has long red hair and attended Friday’s hearing wearing a corset, a cape and a pirate hat.
Munster repeated the same statement to her, and her license was returned.
The guides convened in the lobby afterward to pose for pictures with their freshly reinstated permits.
“It’s good that we got our licenses back, but it should have never happened in the first place,” guide Jonathan Weiss said.
They listed what they still are demanding from the city: for Joiner and Blake to be fired, for their boss, Malachi Hull, to be reprimanded, and for the city to issue public apologies for the insults and harassment.