Council plows through agenda beneath a persistent TNC cloud
By Michael King,
3:00PM, Mon. May 23, 2016
City Council adjourned about 7:45pm last Thursday evening (May 19), despite a fairly daunting initial agenda. Several postponements and a couple of withdrawals helped – although morning fireworks over transportation network companies threatened to derail the proceedings altogether.
Among the initial 59-Item agenda were such potentially contentious matters as body cameras, smartphones, and license-plate readers for the Austin Police Department, new rules for off-peak-time Downtown concrete pouring, and alcohol-sale waivers for restaurants on South Lamar and Hwy. 290 West. After some discussion, the decisions on APD expenditures were postponed to June 9 (in the meantime, they’ll go before Council’s Public Safety Committee); the concrete pouring rule recommendations were withdrawn by staff (pending a possible resolution among stakeholders); and the restaurant waivers were either postponed (Lone Star Pizza) or withdrawn (Torchy’s Tacos).
So, down the road, expect déjà vu all over again.
But before they got to all that: Following the now-reflexive juggling of consent Items, there was a tense dais contretemps over TNCs. The nominal issue was a resolution (sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, Mayor Steve Adler, and D1 CM Ora Houston) requesting city staff find ways to “identify strategies” to facilitate transportation options (ride-hailing or others) that could begin to fill the gap left by the May 7 defeat of the Uber- and Lyft-sponsored initiative and the companies’ consequent departure from Austin. Foreshadowed by sharp exchanges in Tuesday’s work session, the argument (raised by District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair and echoed by D6 CM Don Zimmerman) became instead whether the city would be “subsidizing” other ride-hailing companies, and doing so while failing to enforce the existing TNC ordinance – specifically, requiring fingerprinting of drivers by Get Me and other ride-hailing start-ups.
According to the current ordinance (sustained by the May 7 vote), fingerprinting requirements nominally began May 1 (Lyft had issued a face-saving release arguing that was why it had immediately ceased Austin operations). But the fingerprinting requirement was always incremental, the enforcement mechanisms were not yet defined, and the initiative campaign delayed the entire ordinance process. But Zimmerman and especially Troxclair picked up the Lyft-&-Uber drumbeat, insisting that it was hypocritical not to immediately enforce fingerprinting for any new companies and objecting to any city effort (“subsidies”) to help the new companies engage the new rules while they “scale up” enrollment of new drivers.
Unpersuaded by her colleagues on Tuesday that she was, as D5 CM Ann Kitchen put it, “making repeated misstatements that she knows are misstatements,” Troxclair was determined to propose an amendment to the resolution that would exclude from city assistance any company not “fully compliant” with the existing ordinance – i.e., already fingerprinting drivers. The mayor, showing uncharacteristic impatience at the continuing debate, took up the resolution immediately (“Because I want to get this over with”) and in a surprising move, ruled Troxclair’s amendment “not germane” to the resolution, a decision supported by City Attorney Anne Morgan. “Germaneness” is a parliamentary ruling that flies like comedy pies at the State House as sine die approaches, but is extremely rare (if not unheard of) at City Hall. Later, Adler told the Chronicle that he made the ruling “because it wasn’t germane – and I wanted to prevent Council from cutting each other up over it [in debate].” (In any case, if it came to a vote, it was clear the amendment would fail.)
Troxclair’s amendment not only implied a city failure to enforce a still-unfinished TNC ordinance, it was to be inserted into a resolution, which normally have no enforcement aspects – this one was an initial request that the city manager research ways to assist new TNCs (with existing programs) and return for Council action. Troxclair also claimed the resolution would unfairly “subsidize” certain favored TNCs – although the resolution expressly requested exploration of “revenue-neutral” city resources that could be made available to start-up TNCs (e.g., existing small business programs that might be relevant). While the meeting proceeded, she was all over Twitter making the same argument, and followed with an op-ed in Friday’s Statesman. At one point, the mayor told her, “You can talk to the media after the meeting.”
Zimmerman formally challenged Adler’s ruling (defeated 8-2, with D4 CM Greg Casar absent), and the resolution passed by the same vote. Oddly enough, Zimmerman was somewhat the moderate voice, arguing that Council did not directly cause Uber and Lyft to leave, but that was the “unintended consequence” of their actions. Troxclair, less forgiving, cited a tweet she’d read that said applying the city’s fingerprint requirement to Uber and Lyft was like “telling a vegan restaurant you don’t have to close, but you have to serve hamburgers.”
That’s one way of looking at it. Perhaps a more precise analogy would be to inform the latest hip sushi joint: “You have to abide by the same food safety rules followed by all restaurants in Austin.”
In other actions, Council:
• Passed the Vision Zero traffic safety plan, over some curious objections that “zero fatalities” is a little too much to wish for.
• Eased the ability of residential water customers to get bill rebates, with rather loose requirements for proving actual billing errors.
• Received a briefing update from the Flood Mitigation Task Force.
The next regular Council meeting is June 1, while budget work sessions continue (next is Wednesday, May 25). For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.