The 65,103 signatures sent a message.
The Austin City Council appears to be splintering on the issue of ride-hailing companies and fingerprints, based on divergent ordinances placed on the council’s Thursday’s agenda by Council Member Ann Kitchen and her ally up to now on the subject, Mayor Steve Adler. The parting of the ways comes less than a week after a group supported by ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft compiled 65,103 names on a petition looking to overturn a city law passed Dec. 17 requiring fingerprint-based background checks of their drivers.
Kitchen’s version retains the fingerprint requirement, passed last month by the council on a 9-2 vote that included Kitchen and Adler in the majority. Her proposal also lays out a series of specific vehicle inspection elements for ride-hailing cars.
Adler on Saturday added five items to the council agenda, including a reworking of the Dec. 17 law that would remove the fingerprint mandate as well as a requirement for a city-ordered inspection of all ride-hailing vehicles.
“I hope that we all end up in the same place,” Adler said Monday. “We have to find a different way.”
Kitchen, who said she stands by the fingerprinting requirement, said that issue might be put off until the council’s Feb. 4 or Feb. 11 meeting. By then, the city clerk is expected to validate the petition submitted by Ridesharing Works for Austin, giving the council 10 days to adopt a different ordinance with the provisions sought by Lyft and Uber or call for a public vote on it. That vote probably would occur May 7.
Kitchen said Thursday’s council meeting is more likely to focus on a feature introduced last week by the mayor: a voluntary badge program to signal to ride-hailing customers that the driver has a city seal of approval, along with a set of incentives, such as preferred access to passengers at major festivals, to encourage drivers to obtain the badge.
Kitchen’s ordinance contemplates awarding such a badge only to those who have passed a fingerprint-based background check or who already have a city-conferred chauffeur’s license, which requires submitting fingerprints.
Adler’s version of the badge program does not mention fingerprints or what criteria would be used to certify a driver. Adler envisions a broader application of the badges, foreseeing them for drivers and customers alike, as well as participants in other peer-to-peer services such rental of dwellings and rooms within dwellings.
As for the criteria for voluntary certification, Adler said that could be delegated to the city Transportation Department.
“I’m not sure that’s a really big policy decision” appropriate for the council rather than the city staff, he said.
Kitchen’s proposed ordinance is co-sponsored by Council Members Delia Garza, Leslie Pool and Sheri Gallo. Adler’s measures are co-sponsored by Council Members Greg Cesar, Pio Renteria and, once again, Gallo.
Uber and Lyft already run background checks on their drivers using names, dates of birth and other identifiers. They say the hassle of undergoing a fingerprint background check could deter many potential drivers, and both companies have suggested they would leave if Austin required such a check.
Despite what would appear to be concessions by the mayor and his co-sponsors that are friendly to Lyft and Uber, Adler’s latest proposal did not produce hosannas from the companies.
The badge program in particular was a nonstarter for Uber.
“A proposal that includes penalties is not voluntary,” Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said. “The truth is the badge program would penalize drivers who are unable to complete the city’s duplicative background check by revoking their access to critical earning opportunities. It is disingenuous to categorize this as a voluntary rewards program.”