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At City Hall, tempers flare over TNC resolution

Friday, May 20, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council has formally taken steps to accelerate the expansion of ride-hailing options in order to fill the chasm created by Uber and Lyft’s abrupt departure earlier this month.

Thursday’s discussion on the dais was just the latest entry in a months-old political soap opera, and this time the dramatic twist was a rare flash of stern impatience from Mayor Steve Adler.

Before Council was a resolution to give City Manager Marc Ott three separate assignments to help boost the number of vehicles for hire on city streets.

The first instructs Ott to move forward with the application process for ATX Co-op Taxi, a cabbie-owned cooperative that could add hundreds of new taxis to the available stock. Additionally, the resolution directed Ott to continue engaging with transportation network companies, or TNCs, to determine what roadblocks stand between them and successful operation in Austin. The resolution’s third prong told Ott to “identify revenue-neutral city resources and process or policy efforts that would enable smaller companies to expand rapidly.”

The resolution came in response to Uber and Lyft’s termination of their services following the May 7 defeat of Proposition 1, the referendum that would have done away with regulations passed by Council in December and considered anathema by the two California-based corporations. Most prominent among those rules is the city’s requirement that freelance ride-hailing drivers undergo fingerprint background checks.

Other TNCs are currently operating in Austin or have expressed interest in trying to, most famously Get Me. However, reports have surfaced since the election that these companies aren’t in full compliance with the December ordinance.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair kicked off Thursday’s discussion on the item with a blast against the city’s handling of the issue.

“I just don’t think we have a coherent policy going forward about the standards that we’re applying to new TNCs who are coming to operate in our city,” Troxclair said. She said it is only fair to apply the same rules to new companies that would have been expected of Uber and Lyft before they left. “The response so far to that concern has been that there aren’t penalties” built into the December ordinance, she said, before displaying a copy of that document.

She noted that it spells out as a Class C misdemeanor any violation by TNCs against the ordinance, which among other things contains language about required fingerprint background checks.

Adler countered Troxclair by arguing that the December ordinance is part of an incomplete process to finalize TNC regulations. “There’s a general provision (in the ordinance) that has a penalty,” Adler, who was an attorney before he became mayor, explained. “But as we all know, in a statutory construction, a general penalty provision will always be preempted by a specific provision, and in this case we have a specific provision in that section that says that penalties as concerns this will be set by a subsequent ordinance.”

After further discussion, Troxclair offered to lay out an amendment that would require Ott to report to Council by next week about whether each company currently in operation is abiding by the rules of the December ordinance. Those that aren’t would be denied eligibility for city benefits, per the proposed amendment.

Adler denied Troxclair’s request for a second on the amendment but offered to let her explain it to Council. Troxclair began by reading from the original resolution in order to explain her motivation, but Adler cut her off.

“I’m going to suggest to you that you lay out the amendment,” he said to a visibly stunned Troxclair. When she briefly hesitated, Adler began reading the text of her amendment.

When he was done, he curtly asked, “Is that your amendment?”

“That is. Thank you for reading that,” Troxclair replied.

“No problem,” Adler shot back. “I’m going to rule that not germane to the notice and to the resolution offered.” He explained that potential sanctions did not fit into what he considered to be the limited scope of the resolution.

Troxclair protested Adler’s right to make that ruling, which was upheld by City Attorney Anne Morgan. Following that, Council Member Don Zimmerman asked for a point of order to challenge Adler’s decision. That was put to a vote but failed 8-2, with Troxclair and Zimmerman voting against and Council Member Greg Casar absent.

Council ultimately divided the resolution into two votes. The first two instructions to Ott — regarding the taxi cooperative and the roadblocks to nascent TNCs — passed unanimously. The third, which would explore potential city aid to help smaller TNCs get started, passed on an 8-2 vote, again with only Troxclair and Zimmerman in opposition.

Hours after the vote, a still-frustrated Troxclair told the Austin Monitor that she was “surprised” by Adler’s behavior. She explained that she was attempting to apply the city’s laws fairly.

“If we don’t want to follow the law, then we need to change the law,” she said. “But if we’re going to follow the law, then we need to follow it in a consistent manner.”

“The free market only works if you have predictable, limited regulations that are applied consistently. That is not what we have today in Austin and why I thought my amendment was important,” Troxclair concluded.

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