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Council member fears lawsuits over new ordinance

Tuesday, February 2, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

It’s no secret that on Tuesday, Austin’s city clerk is expected to tell City Council that she has validated at least 20,000 signatures on a petition to change an ordinance governing transportation network companies.

And, it’s clear that her announcement will trigger a requirement for Council – within 10 days – either to adopt Ridesharing Works for Austin’s proposed ordinance or to call for a May 7 election to let voters decide.

But Council Member Ellen Troxclair worries that, instead of following the petition process as the city charter prescribes, Mayor Steve Adler has left the city open to lawsuits by pushing through a new ordinance regulating peer-to-peer services.

Passing the ordinance created a “convoluted, muddy mess,” Troxclair said. “Us continuing to adopt ordinances in the meantime that unquestionably conflict with the language in the citizens’ petition – there is going to be serious potential for a lawsuit.”

Adler has said that the ordinance is different from the one passed in December, which required all TNC drivers over time to pass a fingerprint-based background check. He calls that regulation “confused, and I think probably contradictory; certainly incomplete.” The ordinance’s passage inspired the petition drive.

Under the new ordinance, fingerprinting is voluntary but rewarded with incentives like prime parking. Eventually, Adler said, he intends for the concept to apply to other services in which the buyer and seller don’t know each other. So far, the ordinance focuses on encouraging TNC drivers to submit their fingerprints and other identifying information to a third party.

Adler says he never wanted to mandate fingerprinting – something that TNC companies Uber and Lyft object to – and after passage of the December ordinance, he started talking to “anybody that would listen” about the concept of a third-party product that could verify someone’s identity.

At the stakeholders table were James Russell, executive director of the Trail of Lights Foundation; Josh Jones-Dilworth, who works in marketing at Capital Factory; Blake Hall from; RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser; Dan Graham, founder of; members of ATX Safer Streets; city staff; and Council members Sheri Gallo and Greg Casar.

Clarification: ATX safer streets executive director Sara LeVine contacted the Monitor to explain her organization’s role in the process. She explained, “ATX Safer Streets is not nor has ever been a stakeholder. We were invited to their last meeting a couple of days before the Council vote when the program was well past the planning stages. Based on logistical and legal concerns we have with the program, we have not endorsed it or participated in its planning, unveil or implementation.”

“The question (Adler) asked us was, ‘Could you reimagine the fingerprinting process from the ground up, and make it feel like the Apple store?” Jones-Dilworth said.

They met “two or three” times, Adler said, and the group helped turn his concept of a verification badge into an ordinance that encourages use of the badge through a system of incentives. Everyone was given a task, and Capital Factory members worked on the program, called Thumbs Up. The program is administered through an app that speeds up the fingerprinting process from 15 minutes to four, Jones-Dilworth said.

The program has drawn interest from the city of San Antonio and has agreements to be installed in HEB stores in Austin. But Jones-Dilworth said Thumbs Up itself is just a “straw man” – a demonstration of the concept, not a fully fledged program. It was necessary to develop the app because “you’ve got to get further than an idea,” he said. “You can’t keep Uber and Lyft in town with just an idea.”

“The concept was there before the shorthand name (Thumbs Up) was there,” Adler said. He emphasized that Austin’s new peer-to-peer ordinance doesn’t name a vendor and that he intends for the city to administer the program and issue certificates to badge recipients.

Troxclair said she has questions about the program, such as what will become of the group of volunteers and the Thumbs Up brand. Hours before Council approved the ordinance, Adler demonstrated Thumbs Up outside of Council chambers in a set decorated with neon signs and iPads featuring the program.

“Whether formally or informally, there seemed to have already been an entity created before the Council even had one single discussion,” Troxclair said. “Government is coming in to create this entity, and he has already branded it.”

Uber and Lyft both have said they aren’t interested in Thumbs Up. Adler said their participation isn’t mandatory for the program’s success, but Troxclair and others have said that their buy-in is vital to driver participation.

Meetings over the future of Thumbs Up are ongoing, Jones-Dilworth said, with participants mulling options such as becoming a nonprofit or a B Corp – a for-profit company certified by an organization that holds members to social and environmental standards.

“I’m real appreciative for their help in defining the idea so we could lay it out for the community to discuss. They may be talking to other people about it, and that’s fine, but I’m not talking to other people on their behalf,” Adler said. “We don’t own that.”

Photo by Mark Warner made available through a Creative Commons license.

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