Council: Gasping for Air
Uber/Lyft debate monopolizes Council oxygen
By the time you read this, City Council will have drafted the ballot language and set the May 7 election to determine whether the "citizens' initiative" ordinance on transportation network companies – i.e., Uber and Lyft – will provide the only regulations on TNCs for the next couple of years. Despite a heroic (or foolhardy) effort by Mayor Steve Adler to negotiate a "solution" – he abjures the word "compromise" – between the petition-driven ordinance and Council's attempt to enact the city's own regulations, Council voted 8-2-1 to reject (that is, not to adopt) the petition-based version and effectively place the matter before the voters. The election details are not quite confirmed, but barring surprises (or lawsuits), by the Feb. 19 deadline, the city and county clerks should be ready to move forward in planning the election.
Right up until Council's vote last Thursday – in which the mayor reluctantly joined most of his colleagues in voting against the initiative – Adler said he was still trying to find a way to avoid the election, for policy reasons, and because "it's going to cost the city up to $800,000 to do [and] it's going to suck a lot of air out of our universe for the next four months." Practice your shallow breathing – and if you haven't already done so for primary season, make sure you have your bullshit detector in hand.
(Meanwhile, a somewhat related petition effort to recall District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen appears to have collapsed of its own incompetence, having failed to file required disclosures timely with the city clerk, and never having submitted the signatures organizers claimed to have gathered a couple of weeks ago. For an amusing chronology, see Audrey McGlinchy's "Tracking Down the Austin PAC ...," Feb. 10, on KUT.org.)
On the whole, Thursday's Council meeting offered a surreal spectacle, with the mayor absent for lengthy intervals while he continued backroom negotiations, first with Lyft and later with Uber, while Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo presided over other agenda business. Adler was feverishly attempting to negotiate a memorandum of understanding that he hoped would serve as a codicil to an adoption of the Uber/Lyft-sponsored ordinance. In theory, this would mean the election could be avoided, and the MOU would include some of the incentive-based regulations (the "Thumbs Up!" badge program) that Adler had been advocating since December. Still-unfinished, redlined versions of the MOU were being posted on the Council message board as late as 9:25pm – as "Another MOU Draft" – and when the drafts hit the dais, council members weren't even certain which was which. The mayor tried to tease out who might support the MOU before calling a vote on the ordinance itself (to influence his own vote), but it was a frankly hopeless inquiry, and only served to confirm how detached from the dais reality the backroom shuffle had been.
Although council members on all sides went out of their way to compliment the mayor's efforts to find some alternative – in the midst of the encomia, Adler said to Tovo, "You're not going to make me feel like I died here or something?" – it amounted to damning with comforting praise, as everyone (including Adler) but Ellen Troxclair and Sheri Gallo voted to make any MOU moot by rejecting the petition ordinance. (Although Don Zimmerman said he had signed the petition and supported the ordinance, he abstained, for reasons that had something to do with "metastable signals." Consult the video.)
In the end, what prevailed was the majority's resignation that they faced irreconcilable options: Either accept the petition ordinance as written, with its TNC-determined public safety provisions and its overriding of the city's own authority, or submit the matter to the voters and make their best case. CM Delia Garza acknowledged that it would be easier for Council just to accept the petition ordinance – a "win-win" to put the matter behind them – yet as a defender of labor, she could not endorse corporate-imposed policies described by their drivers elsewhere as "Wal-Mart on wheels." CM Kitchen seconded Garza's remarks, noting that Council was being asked to pit rider safety against cutting DWIs and addressing a real transportation need: "And the only reason that we are trying to make that kind of choice and being put in this position is because we have two companies that continually threaten us to leave."
So while the TNC outcome seemed inevitable, there was plenty of angst on the way to the finish line, including late-evening public testimony on both sides. And there was also plenty of other business being kicked to the curb, symbolically reflected in the vote by Kitchen, Troxclair, and Gallo against once again extending the meeting beyond 10pm. The votes on TNCs concluded about 11:30 – adjournment came a little before 1am, with a postponement until March 3 of a potential reconsideration (after more staff research) of the Pilot Knob PUD/affordable housing deal – which the mayor stoutly defended. However, much of the dais remains skittish on Pilot Knob, because of the clumsy process and consequent public backlash (maybe a little oxygen will follow that trail).
During the TNC discussion, the mayor lamented that this one question was absorbing most of Council's energy, while sidelining other matters like major mobility projects and affordability initiatives. The rest of the agenda told the tale: At the urging of the Urban Transportation Commission, staff was directed to return with potential "multimodal" planning options for a potential November bond or other funding (watch that time slip away); Council "resolved" to do something about its increasingly burdensome committee structure (we'll see); and a couple of other votes (to tighten PUD voting standards; to end small-lot amnesty on redevelopment) made it slightly more difficult to increase the housing supply.
"We do need to be creative," said the mayor (in reference to Pilot Knob), "and try new things." Wish him well.
Zimmerman abstained, for reasons that had something to do with "metastable signals." Consult the video.