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Council to vote on TNC petition Thursday

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

Months of discussion over whether to fingerprint drivers of transportation network companies in Austin are headed for an apex Thursday, when City Council is set to vote on what to do with a citizens’ petition.

In December, Council passed an ordinance that goes into effect at the end of February and would eventually require all TNC drivers to pass a fingerprint-based federal background check.

Soon after passage of that ordinance, a political action committee called Ridesharing Works for Austin – funded in part by Uber and Lyft – gathered signatures to repeal that ordinance. This month, Austin City Clerk Jannette Goodall certified more than 20,000 signatures on the petition, triggering a requirement for Council either to adopt the ordinance proposed in the petition or to put the measure before voters.

The deadline for that requirement now looms, requiring Council to vote on the measures Thursday. Another meeting is scheduled for Friday in case there aren’t seven votes on either of the options to push an item through all three required readings.

But also on Thursday, Council could vote on a memorandum of understanding that Mayor Steve Adler posted online Tuesday – if Adler can get TNC giants Uber and Lyft to agree. A vote on the MOU will be called only if the Ridesharing Work ordinance is adopted.

“It’s going to be a close vote,” Adler said after Tuesday’s work session.

Adler has said that advice from public safety personnel led him to believe that fingerprint-based checks were more comprehensive than the companies’ own criteria but that the same public safety experts indicated that TNCs cut down on drunken driving.

“I am guided on this TNC debate based on safety,” Adler said during the work session. “I was uncomfortable trying to decide between sexual assaults and drunk driving.”

The MOU, he said, will provide some incentives for drivers to get fingerprinted, but it will do so in a way that is amenable to TNCs, like having designated pick-up and drop-off areas for drivers who have been fingerprinted and “separate and equal” locations for drivers who have not. The MOU also imposes upon TNCs an additional .5 percent fee – which would be combined with the 1 percent fee included in the Ridesharing Works ordinance.

In an emailed statement, Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said that efforts to proceed further with the MOU “are and always have been contingent on Council passing the petition ordinance that reflects the will of the people of Austin.”

Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock sent a statement saying, “Passing the initiated ordinance this week would prevent a special election and provide much needed certainty to thousands of riders and drivers who rely on Uber every day.”

Although Council members have differing views on how to regulate TNCs, several seemed united Tuesday in wanting to put the ordinance before voters. In order to get the measure on the May 7 ballot, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has said she needs the language by Feb. 19. The election could cost as much as $800,000.

“I appreciate your eternal optimism, but I’ve lost it in this battle,” said Council Member Delia Garza to Adler on Tuesday. “(TNCs) took the nuclear option in this case, and I say, let’s respect that.”

Adler said he’ll spend the next couple of days talking to Council members about the MOU, adding that it was clear after Tuesday’s conversation that at least “four and a half” people on Council opposed it. Adler said Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria “is still deciding,” although Renteria seemed to be in favor of a citywide election.

Renteria said he’s heard from his constituents that “they’re not afraid of a big corporation that’s trying to bully Austin around.” He added, “They’re not going to win District 3, that’s for sure. People are really upset.”

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