Given that it’s in a government building, the painting that hangs outside Mayor Steve Adler’s office is a bizarre choice. It’s a portrait of a cat – its head crowned in what looks like a steel headdress, with an ornate keyhole at its center. Behind the cat’s head, canoes full of sushi float atop a body of water. Chopsticks stand in for paddles. If nothing else is clear – and little is – the cat wields enormous power over these pieces of sushi. The canoes carrying them appear to be rowing toward it in an act of obedience.
Just feet away sits Adler. He and his fellow City Council members have been wrestling for the past few months with how to regulate, if at all, transportation network companies, including Uber and Lyft. In December, Council passed an ordinance to gradually phase in requirements for fingerprint-based background checks for drivers (although Adler told the Austin Monitor that he disputes the idea that the fingerprinting would be mandatory).
Uber and Lyft have said they would leave Austin if the city required drivers to be fingerprinted. They helped fund a citizen petition, spearheaded by political action committee Ridesharing Works for Austin, to replace that ordinance with a different one that does not require fingerprinting.
So Adler has spent the past two months trying to broker common ground.
“We are safer in this community if we have rideshare companies operating at scale,” Adler told the Monitor. “Our police chief has told us that having Uber and Lyft in our community takes drunk drivers off the road to a significant degree.”
But, Adler added, staff has also told Council that fingerprint-based background checks protect against applicants falsifying their identities. “So what we tried to do is to come up with a solution that would deliver both of those things for us,” he told the Monitor.
Some Council members have expressed frustration over Adler devising numerous iterations of regulations with the intention of keeping Uber and Lyft operating in the city, while ensuring that a significant number of their drivers undergo fingerprint-based background checks.
At a recent work session, Council Member Delia Garza drew attention to Adler’s proclivity for coming up with new regulation ideas just before Council meetings, likening it to a popular reality show. After Adler explained that Council would not take action on the Uber and Lyft-funded petition until this week and that he would seek to bring forward another ordinance, Garza said, “[It’s] like watching The Bachelor. Is he gonna pick her or is he not gonna pick her? Not that I watch that anymore.”
Garza and Council Member Ann Kitchen said they continue to support an original intention in the discussions surrounding TNC regulations – mandating fingerprint-based background checks – and that loosening these is capitulating to Uber’s and Lyft’s threats that they will leave.
Garza said the years she spent as a firefighter have made her less willing to fear the wrath of billion-dollar companies.
“This is going to sound cheesy probably, but when you’ve walked into a burning building, there are very few things that intimidate you,” she told the Monitor. “And so, I think having that experience, I’m not afraid to stand by what I believe in.”
Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell – described to the Monitor by longtime Council observers as more willing to put items to a vote and move on – pointed to Adler’s work experience as one potential guiding difference between the men’s governing styles.
“I think maybe part of the difference is he’s an attorney by education, by practice, by mentality,” Leffingwell told the Monitor. “I come from a different background. I’m an engineer by education, an airline pilot, a Navy pilot by practice. So I view things probably a little more black and white than he does.”
While Leffingwell stressed that he has the utmost respect for Adler, he said his tendency was never to let ordinances stray too far from their origins.
“There were times when I had brought things forward for Council approval, as a matter of policy, when I could see this process going on that it was being so severely eroded by the process of amendment that it was really changing the substance of what it was intended to do – I’d drop it,” Leffingwell said.
Adler said that for him, his quest for compromise (although he argues that the work he has been doing is not compromise, but a process of finding the best solution) does not fly in the face of principles some say the city should have, nor is it purely a product of decades of lawyering. Adler said it’s about public safety.
“If we make fingerprinting mandatory, Uber and Lyft say they’ll leave,” he told the Monitor. “We could feel good about a principled stand, but when I put my head down on my pillow, if we don’t have rideshare working at scale in this community, then our community is not safe.”
Council votes Thursday on whether to accept the rules submitted by the Uber and Lyft-funded petition or to put them on a ballot for a public vote in May. Adler has said that, should Council vote to accept the rules, he will likely propose a memorandum of understanding (known as an MOU) that could serve as an addendum and lay out some incentives for drivers to get fingerprinted.
On Wednesday night, an Uber representative said by email that the company was not at the table for Adler’s draft of the MOU and has its own MOU for Council consideration.
This story was produced as part of a reporting partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT.