Tour guides protest aggressive permit enforcement tactics

Accustomed to telling horror stories for money, French Quarter tour guides did it for free outside of City Hall on Friday as they protested aggressive and allegedly violent permit-enforcement measures and called for the firing of Malachi Hull, head of the city agency that regulates them.

Nearly 100 tour guides and cabbies denounced tactics used by inspectors with the city’s Taxicab Bureau, alleging a month-long harassment campaign aimed at appeasing Vieux Carre residents bitter over the number and size of street-clogging tourist groups.

Among the protesters was Wendy Bosma, who claims taxi inspector Wilton “Big Will” Joiner tossed her against a car and wrenched her arm, causing severe bruising, while wresting her permit from her during a night tour on Nov. 9.

While the protesters shouted under a light afternoon drizzle, Joiner, 56, was being booked for simple battery under an arrest warrant issued Tuesday for the incident. He surrendered himself Friday morning, police said. Bosma said Hull, the bureau’s director, stood nearby watching as Joiner allegedly manhandled her outside the Lalaurie mansion at Gov. Nicholls and Royal streets, where tour guides routinely stop to regale visitors with tales of unspeakable torture at the hands of a 19th century socialite and serial killer, and the purportedly haunted specter that lingers within.

Also at Friday’s protest was Alliance Cab driver Emmanuel Esterlin, who claims in a signed affidavit that another bureau inspector, Ronnie Blake, pepper-sprayed and handcuffed him Oct. 23 on Dauphine Street over a parking violation.

Esterlin said he’d already turned over his permit and driver’s license to Blake at the time.

“It was very strong,” Esterlin said of the pepper spray. “I went to my knees. He put his knee on my back and handcuffed me. (Police) didn’t ask me anything, even (up to) now.”

Esterlin was charged with battery and jailed. Blake remained on the job Friday, roaming the Taxicab Bureau hallway inside City Hall.

Just why taxicab inspectors would be outfitted with pepper spray and handcuffs, or whether they are, was unclear. A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office refused to respond to questions about the inspectors, instead repeating a stock statement from spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford.

“We expect city employees to treat citizens with respect when responding to complaints, and we take these allegations very seriously. Pending ongoing and thorough investigations, we have no further comment at this time,” the statement read.

Bosma said police told her at the scene that she had provoked the scuffle by tussling with Joiner over her tour guide permit. But the warrant issued for Joiner suggests police had a change of heart after Bosma’s account and the emergence of a video, which spread across the Internet and spawned widespread news coverage.

Bosma was accused of breaking city regulations by running a tour within 50 feet of another group — an allegation she denies, saying no other group was around. A hearing scheduled for Friday over her citation was postponed, for reasons that were unclear.

That didn’t stop the tour guides and cabbies from shouting from the steps in front of City Hall.

“It’s like they’re policing a prison yard, instead of a city where citizens are trying to make a living,” said tour guide Nate Scott, who said Blake has gone out of his way to follow, stop and threaten him over signage on his van.

The tour guides say the aggressive tactics started a little over a month ago. Several days later, an attorney for a handful of tour companies sent cease-and-desist letters to Hull, Joiner and Blake, threatening legal action and alleging “systematic threats, harassment and reprisals” by the inspectors.

According to Bosma and others, the tactics didn’t stop.

Attorney Tom Shlosman, who also represents Bosma, called for Hull’s firing “based on the fact he knew his investigators were using excessive force in enforcing city ordinance. He was aware.”

Shlosman questioned whether Blake has the authority to handcuff or pepper-spray guides or derivers, suggesting that it amounts to battery.

“They don’t have the authority to do that,” he said. “Our position is they’re no different than a meter maid.”

Tour guide Jill Odom, who has worked with Haunted History Tours for three years, blames French Quarter homeowners who are drawn to the historic district’s charming allure, then sour on the unromantic parts.

She said she’s fallen victim to a common tactic among some homeowners — strategically watering their plants and letting some of it shower onto the heads below.

“It’s just routine,” Odom said. “A lot of people bought properties in the French Quarter and thought it would be fun, and it’s not what they expected. You bought the ticket, take the ride. It’s just part of life here.”

Odom said the tour guides are “ambassadors” who should be treated as such.

Several tour guides questioned whether Hull has instituted a quota system that has prodded the regulatory aggression. At a Nov. 15 hearing before the City Council, Hull set a “target” of 600 citations to be issued in 2014, up from 236 this year. A mayoral spokesman declined to respond to a question about Hull’s goals.

“It sends a hideous message to tourists,” said Sidney Smith, owner of Haunted History Tours, about the allegedly hostile enforcement tactics, which some tour guides said include shining flashlights in the eyes of nighttime tour takers, while inspectors count bodies.

The city’s muffled response to Bosma’s allegations, and whether Hull should have done more during the incident, left some in the protest group miffed.

In the meantime, Bosma said she’s afraid to return to night tours. She said she’s still got swelling from the fracas, but most of all would like to get back the permit that Joiner took from her.

“I feel I’m less of a tour guide without that piece of plastic on me,” she said.