Austin clerk validates petition seeking election on Uber, Lyft rules

It’s official: Austin voters will get to decide in May on the rules for ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, unless the Austin City Council decides to substitute a petition-generated law for the one it passed in December calling for fingerprint-based background checks of drivers with ride-hailing apps.

City Clerk Jannette Goodall on Tuesday officially certified the petition submitted Jan. 19 by Ridesharing Works for Austin, a political action committee largely funded by Uber and Lyft. Of the 26,320 signatures submitted, the clerk estimates 25,384 were valid — well above the 19,765 needed to move the petition forward.

The petition gives the council 10 days to either adopt a new ordinance with the provisions preferred by Uber and Lyft, or place the proposal on the ballot for the next available election, which would be May 7. The proposal backed by the ride-hailing companies would strike any fingerprinting requirement, instead allowing the companies to continue using their own criminal background checks based on the name, date of birth and other identifying information provided by potential drivers.

The council, which will hold a public hearing on the matter at its meeting Thursday, plans to make its choice Feb. 11.

Mayor Steve Adler, who voted for the December ordinance but now says fingerprinting for drivers should be voluntary , made a pitch Tuesday for a different ordinance that would remove the city’s fingerprinting requirement but provide financial incentives to drivers who get that extra security check. The city would fund such a program by charging a higher fee to companies such as Uber and Lyft than the 1 percent of annual revenue in the petition initiative ordinance.

If the city made fingerprinting voluntary, voters might be more inclined to defeat the measure supported by Uber and Lyft — which, in turn, would assure that other aspects of Adler’s Thumbs Up incentive program for voluntary fingerprinting would be legal.

“The election at that point would not be about whether Uber and Lyft leave” Austin, he said.

But Adler’s idea drew little traction at the City Council’s work session Tuesday. Instead, some council members said they would prefer to stand by the fingerprinting ordinance they approved Dec. 17 and let voters make the final call.

“I feel like we’re bargaining with ourselves, and we don’t have to do that,” Council Member Delia Garza said. “It’s extremely important to have mandatory fingerprinting. … We can do the easy thing, or do the right thing, and that’s to let the voters decide.”

Caroline Joiner, the treasurer with Ridesharing Works, said the council should simply adopt the measure backed by ride-hailing supporters and be done with the issue.

“This is the fast, easiest and most affordable way forward, and will avoid the risk of a ridesharing shutdown in Austin,” Joiner said in a release.

Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman, who voted against the December fingerprinting mandate and the Jan. 28 authorization of the Thumbs Up program, also would prefer instant adoption of the measure promoted by Ridesharing Works.

“But I think we’re headed to a May election,” Zimmerman said.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir previously told the American-Statesman such an election could cost the city between $500,000 and $800,000, depending on how many school districts are also holding elections that day and therefore sharing in the cost.

Goodall said verifying about 6,600 petition signatures took more than 400 hours of her staff time. Her staff examined only a quarter of the signatures submitted, and statistical methods were used to estimate the full number of qualifying signatures.

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