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Ridesharing Supporters Quickly Surpass Signatures Needed to Push for Ordinance Change

Shelby Knowles/Texas Tribune
Austin Uber drivers participate in a September rally against a proposal by the Austin Transportation Department to set regulations similar to those for traditional taxi drivers such as fingerprint-based background checks.

From KUT's city reporting partner the AustinMonitor: Ridesharing Works for Austin has collected 65,103 signatures on a petition to change a city ordinance requiring that drivers be fingerprinted – which could force either a new City Council vote or a city-wide election.

The political action committee opposes rules that Council adopted in December that would require drivers of transportation network companies like Uber, Lyft and Get Me to submit their fingerprints for a background check. Council created a framework for a program that would encourage compliance through incentives and disincentives, which are set to be defined in a Jan. 28 meeting.

“Both the drivers and the riders were passionate about wanting to keep Uber and Lyft in town, and the result was a huge volume of petition signatures gathered in a very short amount of time,” said Caroline Joiner, treasurer of Ridesharing Works for Austin and executive director of TechNet, in a statement to the press.

Two weeks after the new rules were adopted, Ridesharing Works for Austin – which is supported by Uber and Lyft – began soliciting signatures. A similar process was utilized in 2012 in support of 10-1, the new geographic district system, but it took nine months to get the required signatures, the committee said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Steve Adler has been working with the companies and people at the Capital Factory on an initiative called Thumbs Up Austin. The idea is to create a badge that would indicate that a driver has been fingerprinted, said Adler’s spokesman Jason Stanford, and to provide perks for those drivers, such as special event parking.

Reached Monday, Stanford wouldn’t comment on the petition other than to release this statement from Adler on Thumbs Up Austin: “I’m hopeful our best way forward will come out of our ongoing conversations with Uber, Lyft, GetMe, SafePlace and the creative minds at the Capital Factory, and that’s where I’m focused.”

Emails seeking comment from Uber and Lyft were unreturned Monday.

Ridesharing Works for Austin said it will give the petition to the Austin city clerk at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. The clerk then must validate at least 20,000 signatures, which involves confirming that they are from registered voters and that they include the date as well as signers’ names, addresses, dates of birth and voter registration numbers.

Then, Council will have 10 days to either adopt an ordinance that Ridesharing Works for Austin is proposing – rules that were in place before the December vote – or submit the ordinance for a public vote.

The group wants to return to rules adopted under Mayor Lee Leffingwell. In addition, it wants to charge TNCs an annual fee of 1 percent of their gross revenue and implement an application process and a process for violations, said Jennifer Houlihan of Austin Music People, which is a member of the group. Previously, TNCs were not obligated to pay any fee, and there was no process to allow companies to correct noncompliance, Houlihan said.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said that the election would have to take place on a uniform date and would cost the city of Austin about $900,000. The committee is pushing for a May 7 election, but in 2011, the city of Austin moved its uniform election date to November.

“The question might come up about whether the city would be obligated to pay for an election on a date they don’t recognize,” DeBeauvoir said, adding that the city attorney would have to make that determination.

Under Austin’s new ordinance – effective Feb. 1 – most drivers must undergo a fingerprint check by February 2017. The political action committee has called the new rules “duplicative” and has said the regulations will force Lyft and Uber out of Austin.

Their threat has rung true elsewhere.

The companies conduct background checks using a third-party service and oppose fingerprint requirements so adamantly that they have left cities that require the background checks. In 2014, Houston passed an ordinance mandating fingerprinting that Uber says remains the strictest in the country, and Lyft left town.

During the last legislative session, state lawmakers failed to pass regulations that would govern the companies statewide and trump city ordinances.

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