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Government by petition is a recipe for chaos

Point Austin

Earlier this week, City Clerk Jannette Goodall reported to City Council that she and her staff had certified the petitions submitted by the coalition Ridesharing Works for Austin in support of an ordinance regarding transportation network companies – i.e., app-based taxi services trendily re-branded as "ridesharing" by their corporate bosses (primarily Uber and Lyft). In response to Council's December enactment of a TNC ordinance that would have incrementally encouraged virtually universal fingerprinting of TNC drivers (as is required of all traditional taxi drivers) along with other accountability provisions, the companies quickly organized a paid petitioner campaign that in short order accumulated an estimated 65,000 signatures; about a third of those were submitted to the city for confirmation.

Barring some unanticipated reversal over the next couple of weeks, Council can either enact the petitioners' ordinance as is (without amendment), or put the question on the ballot, probably in May. Meanwhile, Mayor Steve Adler continues to work toward some compromise – he's calling his latest, not quite cooked effort the "Austin Innovative TNC Ordinance" – which would presumably be available as an alternative path either for the voters or for his Council colleagues.

Meanwhile, yet another shadowy petition campaign is proceeding in South Austin, this one an alleged recall effort against District 5 City Council Member Ann Kit­chen, by an unregistered local political action committee calling itself "Austin4All," and lately assisted by Texans for Account­able Government, a libertarian group whose previous leadership has repeatedly distinguished itself in city elections by its disdain for campaign laws, because, "freedom." (See "'Fail': Unaccountable Texans," May 4, 2012.)

The groups are targeting Kitchen due to her position as chair of Council's Mobility Committee (which drafted the TNC regulations), and because early on the TNCs branded her as the face and villain of any regulations they disliked. It was in fact that committee that recommended the Decem­ber regulations to Council, where nine members voted for them. Kitchen has recently been defended by her Council colleagues and prominent D5 constituents; if a recall election in fact occurs, she'll be well supported.

Who Rules Austin?

But as even the Statesman has pointed out, generating a recall election because of a single disputed policy is a recipe for pointless public expense, voter cynicism, and lousy government. The same is unfortunately true of the "Ridesharing Works" petition; instead of collaborating with the ongoing process, which requires amendment and compromise at every stage (and then continuing review and revisions), the companies drew a line in the sand on fingerprinting – which they've accepted elsewhere – and said they would end their popular Austin service if the still-developing rules were enforced. Then they bought a petition campaign (last count $50,000, not including their PR cheap-shot campaign against Kitchen) that was sold on the lie that City Council was "forcing Uber and Lyft to leave town."

The "Ridesharing" folks now insist they have nothing to do with the recall-Kitchen campaign, but they certainly started the ball rolling. More importantly, the "fingerprinting" debate is really just a sideshow to the central argument: Who is going to write Austin's laws? An elected city government, or absentee billionaire corporations with the resources necessary to buy an election? After a century of oil-and-gas domination of state politics, Texans should be well wary of self-regulating industries. But I suppose if you can summon the hucksters on your smartphone, the hard-learned lessons no longer apply.

Bring It On

Ordinances by petition are sometimes necessary – both the Save Our Springs ordinance campaign and the recent 10-1 campaign were in response to long-standing problems inadequately addressed at City Hall. (But both campaigns also resulted in overcomplicated ordinances that weren't subject to full public review and remain difficult to amend.) The current, California-style TNC petition campaign blew up a public process that was still in progress – with stakeholders on all sides trying to balance the needs of riders, full-and part-time drivers, companies, public safety, even new technology – and now has forced an expensive, polarizing election.

As for the Kitchen recall effort, if it happens, it would be an ideological farce (and another waste of public money) targeting a public official over a single policy question that has bedeviled previous Councils before this one: How to provide adequate and safe ride service in both peak and off-peak periods, while protecting the rights of riders and the livelihoods of drivers. Inter­nationally, the TNCs' pretensions to "disruptive innovation" have been little more than a cover story for scabbing on full-time drivers, low-balling riders at their mercy, and cyber-siphoning off the proceeds.

I wish Mayor Adler well in his well-intentioned effort to find some helpful alternative to political gridlock. But my stronger sympathies lie with Council Members Delia Garza and Sabino Renteria, who this week said let's defy the bullies at the polls and rely on the good sense of Austin voters. If they choose convenience over self-government, at least we'll know where the rest of us stand.

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City Council, transportation network companies, Uber, Lyft, Steve Adler

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