"Mr. Richard Jones and Ms. Rhonda Jones, would you please approach the microphone?" asked Vince Higgins, chair of the Memphis Transportation Commission, from his post in the chairman's seat in the Memphis City Council chambers.
Richard Jones is actually Robert Ratton, a staff attorney with the city of Memphis, and Karen Beyke, a municipal court consultant with the University of Tennessee, is playing the role of Rhonda. The two were participating in a mock trial at last Thursday's monthly meeting of the Memphis Transportation Commission.
The seven-member commission (with only five members present) heard the mock case as a test run before the commission begins hearing appeal cases by real wrecker, taxi, and other transportation companies that contest fines and penalties levied against them by city permits administrator Aubrey Howard.
The Memphis City Council approved the commission's formation last year, but the group is just now at the stage where they're preparing to hear cases. Not only will they hear appeals from transportation companies that have been fined by the permits office, but they will also hear all new permit applications from wrecker, taxi, limousine, horse carriage, and pedi-cab companies.
But first, the mayor-appointed commission had to pass their mock trial test.
Richard and Rhonda Jones are a fictional pair representing a faux towing company, City Towing, Inc., which operates in the city of Memphisville, Tennessee, according to a letter from the fake permits administrator.
"I've been operating this company for 11 years, and these fines and penalties are draconian. It's cutting off the nose to spite the face," Ratton told the commission, as he played the role of City Towing owner Richard Jones.
In the fictional trial, City Towing had been cited for failing to post a wrecker permit in a vehicle and failing to drop a vehicle when warranted. The fake-permits administrator had recommended a $1,000 fine and had ordered the business to cease operations due to a record of violations.
But commission member Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, thought the cease and desist order was going too far.
"Coming out of the box and suspending an 11-year-old business, we're going to be front page news," said Kane, citing what might happen after a real case where the commission had approved such a stiff penalty. "People are going to say, 'Who appointed these idiots?'"
According to Higgins, Kane and the other members passed their test. It was later revealed that a hefty fine and the cease and desist order were included in the penalties to see how much commissioners knew about what penalties were legally allowed by the permits administrator. They were supposed to disagree with the penalties, which they did.
"The permits administrator can only go so far. He cannot revoke anyone's permit. He can only suspend for up to 10 days," said Higgins, who began writing the city ordinance that created the commission when he served as permits administrator five years ago.
Before the commission was in place, the only way a transportation company could appeal a violation was to go before the Memphis City Council, which has plenty of other business to take up its time.
"That's where I saw the problem. The council was going to take three years to hear all the cases we had back then. You would never get through these things, and public safety would suffer," Higgins said. "We created the commission to hear those appeals in a timely fashion and to keep public safety at the forefront."
The Memphis Transportation Commission will begin hearing appeals and permit applications in January, so long as the Memphis City Council approves the commission's newly drafted rules and regulations before the end of the year.