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Suit challenges Austin’s ballot language

Friday, March 11, 2016 by Jo Clifton

The city of Austin has until 5 p.m. today, according to a city spokeswoman, to respond to a legal action in the Texas Supreme Court – called a writ of mandamus – challenging the ballot language City Council adopted for the May 7 election on rules for transportation network companies.

The lawsuit was filed late Wednesday, and the court has a very short deadline for making a decision. If the court decides in favor of the position – which argues that the ballot language is inadequate – it will have to do so before the end of the day on Monday. Travis County officials started proofreading the ballot on Thursday, and the ballot language will be “locked down” on Monday.

Uber supporter Samantha Phelps, who signed the petition to put the matter on the ballot, is technically the person bringing the lawsuit. However, it is really Uber that is seeking to force the city to add language on the ballot. That language would reflect the fact that the Uber- and Lyft-supported petition forcing the election includes some consumer protections and other aspects voters might consider positive, such as an annual fee equal to 1 percent of the TNCs’ gross revenues to be paid to the city’s Transportation Department for enforcement.

The ordinance approved by Council would require a 2 percent fee, but the big point of contention between Uber and the city has been the fingerprinting requirement. The language currently slated to go on the ballot specifically states that the TNC-backed ordinance would repeal Council’s previously passed ordinance that required drivers to be fingerprinted, repeal the requirement to identify vehicles used by TNC drivers with distinctive emblems and repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane.

According to the lawsuit, Phelps – “along with approximately 23,000 other Austin citizen legislators” – has exercised her power under the law to seek legislative change through the referendum process.

The Phelps lawsuit points out that the TNC-backed ordinance would set aside 10 cents for every ride originating in Austin “to support the TNCs’ riders who require ADA accommodations.” There is no mention of that in the ballot language. The ballot language also fails to mention the fact that the ordinance backed by the TNCs would require background checks and prohibit those with criminal records from working as drivers.

Uber spokeswoman Jaime Moore released the following statement on Thursday: “We’ve heard from many Austinites, including riders and drivers, that the City Council’s ballot language is confusing and does not accurately represent the petition they signed to regulate ridesharing. It only tells voters about the regulations that would be repealed and not the common sense safety regulations that would be restored. … The City Council’s ballot language is confusing, inaccurate and only tells voters one side of the story. Voters are asking for clarity, not confusion, so they can decide what types of transportation options they want in Austin.”

Lyft is not participating in the lawsuit, but Chelsea Wilson, Lyft’s senior policy communications manager, issued a statement about it: “Austinites deserve straight forward ballot language that makes it clear that voting for Proposition 1 will keep Lyft in Austin and maintain the same regulations that have worked well for the community for the past two years, including professionally administered background checks for all drivers. Lyft supports any effort to preserve that right, and trusts the Texas Supreme Court will recognize the attempt to put ridesharing at an unfair disadvantage in this election.”

In response to the Uber petition, a new group with the name of Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice sent out a press release Thursday, saying, “This is the latest episode of what has been a consistent pattern of deception by Uber and its allies. They have consistently misled the public by accusing the Austin City Council of attempting to force ridesharing companies out of Austin. In reality the Council has merely asked them to follow some of the same public safety rules followed by other transportation companies.”

This group’s message is: “Don’t let corporations write Austin’s rules for public safety. Vote No.”

Leading the group are political consultants Mykle Tomlinson and Dean Rindy. Rindy said the group plans to set up a political action committee soon. They expect Uber and its allies to spend millions of dollars to pass their referendum.

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

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