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Public Safety Commission wished for input in TNC talks

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 by Jack Craver

Although the issue long ago passed them up, members of the Public Safety Commission on Monday discussed the implications of City Council’s controversial vote in December imposing new regulations on ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft – also known as transportation network companies, or TNCs. Members failed to come to a consensus on what the city should do on the issue.

Four of the nine commissioners present – Chair Kim Rossmo, Mike Levy, Sam Holt and Ed Scruggs – voted in favor of a resolution essentially supporting the ordinance passed by Council in December, which phases in a mandate that TNC drivers undergo a fingerprint-based background check. Commissioners Rebecca Webber and Daniela Nunez abstained, while commissioners Bill Worsham, Brian Haley and Emmanuel Loo voted against.

Contrary to what Rossmo suggested immediately following the vote, the resolution did not pass, because it failed to garner the six votes necessary to constitute a majority of the 11-member commission.

Even if the commission had recommended the resolution, the action likely would have produced little effect on public policy. Council has already approved a related ordinance, and voters will get a chance in May to replace the December ordinance with an alternative one – that would not require fingerprinting – thanks to a successful petition drive by the Ridesharing Works for Austin political action committee. The petition effort was supported by Uber and Lyft, which have threatened to leave the city if requirements for fingerprint-based background checks are implemented.

Nunez suggested the commission should drop the issue, in light of the upcoming referendum. “I would feel more comfortable letting the public decide,” she said.

Rossmo vehemently disagreed. “We’re not doing our job if we just punt it,” he said.

Rossmo later told the Austin Monitor that he was puzzled by the fact that Council did not ask the commission to review the issue of ride-hailing services last year. “I find it a little concerning in terms of the impact we have,” he said.

Worsham, who, along with Haley, had pushed for the commission to discuss the issue at the last meeting, echoed Rossmo’s opinion. “It wasn’t that we were taking offense, but it would seem to be something that we would want to talk about,” he told the Monitor on Tuesday.

Worsham and Haley were appointed by Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, respectively, both of whom are opposed to the regulations.

Although neither Worsham nor Haley said they were necessarily against mandatory fingerprinting for TNC drivers, Worsham suggested that such a rule could have unintended consequences by reducing the number of TNC drivers and thus increasing drunk driving.

Haley said that he supported consistency among regulations governing taxi companies and ride-hailing services. (Inconsistencies in regulations governing the two types of ride-hailing services are partly what prompted the new regulations.) However, he said his impression is that taxi companies are subject to lower standards than Uber and Lyft. However, as Rossmo pointed out, taxi drivers are already required to undergo fingerprint-based background checks.

Brian Manley, chief of staff to Police Chief Art Acevedo, reiterated the department’s position that a fingerprint-based background check is the most thorough way to find out if a person has a criminal record, and that it is significantly less prone to error than the name-based background checks currently conducted by Uber and Lyft.

He added, however, that the department believes the city is safer with Uber and Lyft in operation – even without the fingerprint checks – than if the two services left town because of the important role the police believe the two services play in getting impaired drivers off the road.

Photo by ctj71081, via Creative Commons

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