Taxi owner says rules would shut down her company

By Alex Bridges

Front Royal could put one taxi cab firm out of business if Town Council passes rules pushed by a competitor.

Jenna Weatherholtz opened A1 Taxi LLC in Front Royal in early February.

An ordinance under consideration by town officials and council could restrict convicted felons from driving taxicabs. Weatherholtz admitted Wednesday she has a felony conviction on her record. Online records show Weatherholtz was convicted in Warren County Circuit Court in March 2010 of felony forging and uttering.

While most council members voiced support for some taxi rules, such as a ban on registered sex offenders as drivers, Councilman Bret Hrbek remains opposed to the town regulating the businesses.

Weatherholtz said that she sides with Hrbek, noting, “I believe it’s a manufactured crisis to benefit one company.”

Weatherholtz said she does favor some regulations that would ensure vehicles work properly. Weatherholtz also supports a rule that would prohibit registered sex offenders from driving taxis. But she said she draws the line when it comes to a blanket ban on drivers convicted of other felonies.

“Everybody makes a mistake every now and again or does at least one point in their life and I do believe in giving second chances as far as the whole felony thing is concerned,” Weatherholtz said. “If it’s like an armed robber or murderer or something I wouldn’t want somebody like that working for me.”

Weatherholtz warned of the limitations of background checks.

“Even with doing a background check, which I do check most of the people who come to work for me, I do check them online through the Virginia court case search if they’re local and if I suspect there’s any other reason I can do a background check on them,” Weatherholtz said.

Convictions for crimes that relate directly to driving a cab, such as vehicular manslaughter, would raise flags, Weatherholtz said.

“Just because somebody doesn’t have a criminal history doesn’t mean that they potentially couldn’t or haven’t done something and haven’t gotten caught,” Weatherholtz said.

“As far as the whole felon thing is concerned that’s just, well, I’m not going to say any names but that’s just someone’s way of trying to put me out because they know that I have, well I have myself a felony conviction on my record,” Weatherholtz said. “That’s the whole plot.”

Elwood’s Cab Company owner Michael “Mike” Williams said Wednesday he doesn’t favor the town imposing rules on taxi businesses except for a restriction barring registered sex offenders from driving.

“But all the other, I’m not really for,” Williams said. “I don’t agree with it.”

Williams opened Elwood’s Cab Company nine years ago. He said his parents ran taxi services in town for years before he started his business.

He said his company does background checks and that they don’t hire sex offenders or people convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or related offenses. He noted that most of his employees have worked at Elwood’s for years. Williams agreed with Weatherholtz that an outright ban on all felons would go too far.

“Everybody changes,” Williams said. “It just makes you feel like the town’s going to try to tell you how to run your business.”

Hrbek has voiced similar concerns, pointing out that most cab companies perform their own checks and likely would not hire drivers with certain felony convictions or those who are registered sex offenders.

Town Council has sought the opinion of the state attorney general’s office on how far Front Royal can go to regulate taxicab companies. Currently five taxicab companies operate in the town, according to information from the finance department.

Supporters of the proposal say this is a stall tactic by those leaders opposed to the regulations.

Yellow Cab owner Anthony Elar Jr. said Tuesday that the other taxi companies in town support the proposed regulations.

Elar refuted accusations that he wants the town to enact tougher rules on cab companies in an effort to force competitors out of business. He said Tuesday he wants regulations that would “ensure the safety and welfare of the residents of the community, both in the background and the conduct of the drivers and the safety of the vehicle.”

Yellow Cab perform criminal background checks on its drivers, has fingerprints collected and conducts random drug testing, Elar said. The business terminates employees who fail the tests.

“We’re trying to institute the same thing in Front Royal to prevent violent criminals that have been convicted and individuals on the sexual predator list,” Elar said.

Elar also claims that drivers convicted of violent felonies or those who are registered as sex offenders can and do pick up passengers in Front Royal where children are present. No law prevents felons from driving for cab companies and picking up child passengers. An ordinance prohibiting felons from driving cabs in town would prevent this, Elar said.

Elar has pointed out that his company offers service in other towns, such as Luray and Woodstock, both of which have regulations in place governing taxis.

Luray’s code governs taxicabs but doesn’t specifically ban registered sex offenders from driving vehicles. Town police Chief Page Campbell stated by email that Luray issues a certification of public convenience and necessity to a company if approved by the Taxicab Commission. The company first must obtain the proper business license that provides proof of insurance and bond. The town code does not require the certificate’s renewal, though the holder must report any changes to the original as well as maintain the insurance and bond.

“It is the responsibility of the driver (cab) to report if he/she is convicted of any violation of town, county, state or federal law … if it is a felony offense or Class 1 misdemeanor, or other offenses involving the operation of any motor vehicle, or offenses involving the consecution or possession of alcohol or illegal drugs,” Campbell stated. “In such cases the Chief of Police will review it, and may revoke the permit or in the case of the original request for taxi permit deny it.”

Woodstock also regulates taxicabs. Town code requires drivers to obtain a special permit through the police department. The required application includes questions about the person’s criminal history, alcohol and drug use, and if that person had a previously issued taxi license revoked. The ordinance states that the town may collect fingerprints and photographs from applicants. The police chief may also require any applicant to undergo a medical examination and provide the results. Each taxicab driver’s license must be renewed.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com