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Council reopens path to chauffeur’s permit for many criminal offenders

Friday, December 16, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council took action on Thursday that could help put some disqualified taxi and transportation network company drivers back on Austin roads.

The amendment to the city code tweaked an existing ordinance that Council passed in June that restricted many current and potential drivers with criminal records from qualifying for a chauffeur’s permit.

Under the new ordinance, which takes effect immediately, disqualified drivers will be able to seek an appeal through the Austin Transportation Department.

Before Council members began discussing the issue, they heard from several drivers who detailed how the June ordinance had upended their lives.

Michael Peterson explained that he had been convicted of a crime more than three decades ago but has kept a clean record since then. He told Council that he moved to Austin and established a family, all while making his living as a professional driver.

“Then recently, because of the changes to the ordinance, 30 years of work, of living right – it didn’t seem to matter,” said Peterson.

Christopher Bedford, an owner-operator with SuperShuttle, said he is unable to renew his chauffeur’s permit because of a conviction from more than a decade ago. Without the permit, he explained, his business has been “going down the drain.”

“I have developed a career at SuperShuttle, and I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t drive anymore,” Bedford said. “I’ll have to start all over again.”

The emotional testimony clearly affected the typically stoic dais. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who supported the June ordinance, conceded, “Sometimes at Council, we can’t really anticipate every possible outcome of the actions we take.”

Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Ann Kitchen and Delia Garza echoed Tovo, each describing the effects of the June ordinance as “unintended.”

However, Council Member Greg Casar, the primary sponsor of Thursday’s code amendment, challenged that assessment, noting that he had offered an amendment in June that would have given staff discretion over the disqualifications. Those efforts failed after drawing support only from Council Member Pio Renteria.

“While the consequences were unintended, they weren’t unanticipated,” Casar told the Austin Monitor on Thursday evening.

Council took up consideration of Casar’s proposal on Thursday morning and seemed prepared to approve it just before breaking for lunch.

However, Council Member Ora Houston requested a postponement in order to allow other disqualified drivers who had spoken with her office to come to City Hall to add their testimony. Kitchen politely objected to that entreaty, noting Council members’ apparent desire to approve the item as well as the packed agenda still to come.

Nevertheless, Houston stood her ground, saying, “I think we always as a Council want to give people directly affected by the policies that we make an opportunity to express their concern.”

Looking for a compromise, Adler offered to hold action on the item in order to give Houston time to contact the drivers during the lunch break.

When Council returned to the item in the afternoon, Houston said that the drivers had declined to show up given the apparent will on the dais to pass the measure.

Before taking the final vote, Garza offered an amendment that would have instructed the city manager to explore ways to move the appeals process to the municipal court.

“My motivation is that these are very fact-specific cases and instances, and I feel that at least a lawyer, or even better a judge, is best prepared to make that call,” Garza explained.

Casar aired concerns over the specificity of the amendment and suggested he would prefer the manager explore other options outside of the court. As an example, he offered that the city’s Human Resources Department could potentially handle the appeals.

Adler brokered another compromise by which the manager would be free to explore all options but must at the very least bring back a proposal to move the appeals to the court.

Ultimately, Council approved the new ordinance on a 10-0 vote with Council Member Sheri Gallo absent.

Photo by Andrea Di Falco made available through a Creative Commons license.

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