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Council to discuss incentives for fingerprint requirements

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

City Council members are poised to kick the transportation network company ordinance down the road.

On Thursday, Mayor Steve Adler will ask Council to stall strengthening an ordinance passed in December and, instead, adopt his and Council Member Ann Kitchen’s new proposal, which is meant to nudge all ground transportation providers into submitting to a fingerprint-based federal background check.

“What we’re going to be discussing is an incentive program,” Adler said in a Tuesday work session. “We’re not talking about the initiative or about whether fingerprinting is mandatory or not.”

Discussion is set to begin no later than 2 p.m., and public comments will be limited to one hour. In December, the TNC ordinance passed 9-2 after hours of public comments and council discussion, most of which was related to fingerprinting.

“I don’t understand why this has become so convoluted,” said Council Member Delia Garza, adding that a repeal of the fingerprinting mandate would be going down the wrong road. “It’s worthless if we make it voluntary – it really is, because the people we’re trying to eliminate are not going to get fingerprinted.”

The new proposal would apply to everything from pedicabs to limos and transportation network companies, Kitchen said, and would give a badge to drivers who pass a fingerprint-based national background check.

“The incentives will be a plus for all drivers,” said Kitchen, adding that badge holders would get special perks such as access to prime pick-up and drop-off areas in entertainment districts and at events like South by Southwest, Austin City Limits and the Trail of Lights.

Both Kitchen and Adler said that the new idea would eventually apply to all companies with peer-to-peer operations. Council Member Don Zimmerman said that the proposal, to him, reeked of “government creep,” and he wondered if the badges would eventually be extended to online dating programs.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair rejected Adler’s comparison of the badges to a verified Twitter account or a SuperSeller badge on eBay. She said Kitchen and Adler’s proposal “significantly limits what the drivers are able to do,” pointing out that the ordinance would allow city staff to implement new incentives in the future.

Debbee Hancock, a spokeswoman for Uber Technologies, said in an emailed statement that “a proposal that includes penalties is not voluntary. The truth is the ‘badge program’ would penalize drivers who are unable to complete the city’s duplicative background check by revoking their access to critical earning opportunities.”

As it was passed, the December ordinance – effective Feb. 1 – gives companies like Uber, Lyft and Get Me one year to fingerprint 99 percent of their drivers. In a separate item from the badge proposal, Council on Thursday will consider postponing that effective date.

What won’t be discussed is a petition asking Council to abandon that ordinance and pass a new one that doesn’t require fingerprinting. The city clerk is still validating the 23,000 petition signatures that political action committee Ridesharing Works for Austin recently dropped off at City Hall. Once the signatures are validated – they must be from registered Austin voters, among other criteria – Council will have 10 days to either adopt the new ordinance or call for a city-wide vote. The PAC has reported that more than 65,000 people have signed the petition.

Kitchen said she expects the petition to come before Council either Feb. 4 or Feb. 11.

The TNCs oppose mandatory fingerprint background checks, which remain in place in Houston but in no other city, according to Uber. The companies complain that the checks are burdensome and discourage their drivers – most of whom shuttle passengers around as a side gig – from working for them.

“It is curious that the City Council is spending their time discussing proposals that are in conflict with what 65,000 Austinites have asked them to do – either adopt the original rules that have allowed ride-sharing to flourish in this city or give Austinites a chance to vote,” Hancock said. “We hope the City Council will listen to the people.”

Uber ride Bogota (10277864666)” by Alexander Torrenegra from Secaucus, NJ (New York Metro), United States – On my first @Uber ride in Bogota heading to a Startup Weekend. Priceless easiness and safety. I love disruptive innovation. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

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