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Uber Battle in Austin Extends Beyond City Limits

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

The streets of Austin are lined with campaign signs. Slick mailers are flooding mailboxes. Voters are besieged by phone calls and text messages, many paid for by a lopsided $8 million-plus campaign for an off-schedule special election to decide a single issue – who will write the rules for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft in the Texas capital city.  

The outcome of Saturday’s election is expected to reverberate far beyond Austin, serving as a either a case study or cautionary tale for other cities trying to forge working relationships with Uber and Lyft, who are competing to dominate the lucrative ride-hailing industry.  

Central to the battle is mandatory fingerprint background checks for vehicle-for-hire drivers. Austin, like many cities, wants them while Uber and Lyft don’t. The result has been a multi-million dollar election brawl that has already seen almost 10 percent of Austin voters cast ballots early.  

Uber and Lyft have pulled out all the stops, bringing in Friday Night Lights actor Taylor Kitsch to pose for photos with early voting students at the University of Texas at Austin and to film an ad declaring: “Ridesharing is a lot like me…it’s beautiful.”  

Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell is also appearing in television ads backing Uber and Lyft, and received a $25,000 consulting fee from the companies’ PAC, Ridesharing Works for Austin. Current Mayor Steve Adler has staked out a position firmly on the city’s side. 

“The degree of shock and awe of the political power that these companies can bring to bear against opponents has to be part of what they want to show, because it is such a public display of force,” said Rick Claypool, research director for Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group. “This really does seem to be uncharted territory, where a company can just have this much power just by the nature of its business.” 

Similar battles have been fought in cities across the country over the fingerprint background checks, but Uber and Lyft’s aggressive campaign in Austin could serve as a warning for other cities looking to regulate the services. 

Uber and Lyft led the petition drive to place an ordinance on the ballot preventing Austin’s city council from requiring ride-hailing drivers to submit to fingerprint background checks. Both Uber and Lyft have pledged to leave the city if voters don’t approve the ordinance. 

Huey Rey Fischer, deputy outreach director for Ridesharing Works for Austin, a group backed exclusively by Uber and Lyft, said the issue has gripped the city because the outcome of Saturday’s election, “directly impacts the quality of life for Austin and Austinites.” 

Uber has pushed back against local ordinances and statewide legislation in the past, but Claypool said Austin “is where the conflict between a local government and Uber has been carried the furthest.” Austin’s referendum marks the first time an Uber-backed proposition has gone to voters instead of being employed as leverage to pressure governing bodies to strike a compromise, he said. 

The Austin City Council passed its own ordinance in December requiring drivers for ride-hailing companies to undergo fingerprint background checks. Ridesharing Works was formed in response, and launched a wide-reaching petition drive that would force the city to either adopt an ordinance with fewer regulations or put the measure to a vote. The petition garnered more than 25,000 certified signatures and the city council voted in February to put the issue before voters.  

Proposition 1’s language asks voters if the city’s original December ordinance should be dumped and replaced with one that would, “prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicles with a distinctive emblem” and “repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane.” 

Uber and Lyft have held true to their promise to bolt from other cities if they were unable to snuff fingerprint background check requirements, turning their backs on Galveston, Midland and Corpus Christi. But Houston is one of two cities in the nation where Uber has continued to operate despite local regulations requiring fingerprint background checks. Lyft left the city more than a year ago when the regulations were adopted, and now Uber is threatening to do the same. In April, the company announced it would leave Houston if the city did not repeal its existing regulations.  

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he found it “ironic” Uber threatened to leave the city weeks before the Austin referendum election. At a press conference after Uber’s announcement, Turner pointed to the campaign in Austin and said, “let me just say to you that this is just not how we do it in the city of Houston. This is not the way to come to the table.”  

Claypool said Uber and Lyft’s behavior in Austin would likely become an “object lesson” for local governments considering regulating vehicle-for-hire companies. 

“If they think they might get an $8 million headache for even thinking about it, it’s going to have a chilling effect,” he said.  

Fischer said Uber and Lyft are pushing for the ordinance because they “really want to stay in this community.” 

“It’s not about sending messages or political gains for them,” Fischer said of Uber and Lyft’s intentions in Austin. “It’s them defending a business model that works, that keeps Austinites safe and really works in the public interest.” 

The tactics and bankroll employed by the companies has spawned virulent criticism from opponents. One group, calling itself Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, called for an investigation into the campaign during a press conference Wednesday. 

“To be blunt, this campaign doesn’t pass the smell test,” said former Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison. “We are calling for a broad investigation of Uber and Lyft’s actions to determine if they have stepped over the line from grossly inappropriate to illegality.” 

The group confirmed that Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission over text messages from Uber – messages that also spurred a class-action lawsuit against the company filed Wednesday.  

“Uber has violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act … by robo-texting thousands of unwanted text messages to the cell phones of thousands of Uber users in Austin, Texas – all without the prior express consent of those receiving Uber’s text messages,” the lawsuit reads.  

Claypool said the campaign supporting Proposition 1 troubles him because of how Uber and Lyft present themselves to voters. 

“I think what’s interesting is that they come in and can characterize themselves as a scrappy underdog and at the same time come in with the big advantage being a billion dollar corporation brings, to really push the regulatory environment that they want into a particular locality over any opposition that might happen locally,” Claypool said.  

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image photo credit: Pro and against signs of Austin’s Prop 1 ride-hailing vote posted along voting centers on University of Texas at Austin’s campus on April 28, 2016. / photo credit: Shelby Knowles / Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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Austin

Austin PRIDE Announces Date for 2019 Festival & Parade

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The Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation, the non-profit organization that manages and organizes Austin’s PRIDE celebration, has announced that the 29th annual Austin PRIDE Festival and Parade will take place on SATURDAY, AUGUST 10, 2019. This year’s theme is Boogie Wonderland.

The 2015 Austin Pride Festival at Fiesta Gardens. Photo credit: Chase Martin/therepubliq

The festival will return to Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach in Town Lake Metropolitan Park (a/k/a Fiesta Gardens) from 11 AM – 6 PM and feature entertainment, games and activities, drinks, food, family zone, and 140+ booths featuring local non-profits organizations and businesses. Tickets on the day of the event will be $20 for adults (18+), $10 for youth (7-17 years old), and FREE for children six and under. Discounted advanced tickets will go on sale in the near future at www.austinpride.org.

The Apple contingent in the 2015 Austin Pride Parade
The Apple contingent in the 2015 Austin Pride Parade. Photo credit: Chase Martin/therepubliq

The parade will step off at 8 PM. The route through downtown Austin remains unchanged from previous years; starting at the south gate of the Texas State Capitol Building, heading down Congress Avenue, then turning on 4th Street going through the Warehouse District before ending at Republic Square. The parade is free and open to the public.

The parade and festival are projected to bring in over 400,000 attendees, making it the largest single day event based on attendance in Austin. By comparison, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has 75,000 attendees and South by Southwest has 285,000 attendees.

Registration for booths at the festival and spaces in the parade is now open online at www.austinpride.org/paradeandfestival.

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Austin City Manager Announces Assistant City Manager Hires

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Austin City Hall
Austin City Hall. Photo credit: Todd Ross Nienkerk / That Other Paper under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk has selected Rodney Gonzales and Chris Shorter as Assistant City Managers in his first steps toward reorganizing the executive team to align with Austin’s Strategic Direction.

Mr. Gonzales will oversee departments and projects focused on economic opportunity and affordability. Mr. Shorter will manage efforts on health & environment and culture & lifelong learning.

“Rodney and Chris stood out amongst the other candidates as people who understand the challenges facing Austin. It was clear to me that they’re well-prepared to work with our community and our employees to advance strategies that can address those challenges in a way that aligns with our priorities,” said Cronk. “Both of them are ready to hit the ground running.”

Rodney Gonzales

Austin Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales
Austin Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales will oversee departments and projects focused on economic opportunity and affordability. Photo courtesy: City of Austin.

Rodney Gonzales comes to the Assistant City Manager role having served in leadership roles in Development Services and Economic Development for the City of Austin over the past 12 years. Mr. Gonzales began his career in finance, serving as the Director of Finance for the cities of San Marcos and Luling, TX. He holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s degree from Texas State University.

Chris Shorter

Austin Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter
Austin Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter will manage efforts on health & environment and culture & lifelong learning. Photo courtesy: City of Austin

Chris Shorter has served in leadership roles for the District of Columbia (DC) Government for the past 10 years. Most recently he has been the district’s Director of Public Works which provides environmental services and solid waste management for residents. He has also held roles as Chief Operating Officer (COO) for DC’s Department of Health and as COO and Chief of Staff for the district’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Mr. Shorter received a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public & International Affairs and a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida.

The Selection Process

This process started in late July when Cronk issued a memo outlining the restructuring of the City Manager’s Office around outcomes articulated in the Strategic Direction 2023. His memo detailed the process for an open recruitment for four Assistant City Manager positions and one Deputy City Manager, beginning this Fall with the recruitment of these two positions.

In September, a survey was released to the public asking them to identify the skills and characteristics they felt were most important for City leaders to possess. The response to the survey helped build the job posting and candidate profiles. Cronk solicited additional feedback in September from the quality of life groups and with community groups related to the areas of responsibility on which each Assistant City Manager will focus. This information was used to inform Cronk’s selection.

“The feedback I received at the start of the process has been invaluable in identifying leaders whose background and approach will align with the expectations of our community moving forward,” Cronk noted, adding his recognition for those who have served in interim roles during the search. “Both Sara Hensley and Joe Pantalion deserve thanks and credit for the seamless leadership they’ve provided. They’re an example of the incredible skill and deep professional depth we have here at the city.”

Hensley and Pantalion will return to their jobs as Director of the Parks and Recreation Department and Watershed Protection Department, respectively.

The recruitment for the next two Assistant City Managers, overseeing Mobility and Safety, opened on November 20. The search for a Deputy City Manager is slated to begin in Spring 2019.

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UT-Austin Reaches Deal For New $338 Million Basketball Arena

A corporation, Oak View Group LLC, will pay to construct the arena in exchange for future revenue generated at the venue.

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A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents.
A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents. Photo credit: The University of Texas

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously voted to authorize its flagship university in Austin to arrange for a private group to construct and manage a new $338 million on-campus basketball arena.

A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents.
A tentative design of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents. Photo credit: The University of Texas

The California-based Oak View Group will build the 10,000-seat venue and then convey it back to the university, school officials said. In return, the group will manage the venue, sell its naming rights and collect revenue from concerts and other events. Revenue from managing the stadium will allow the company to recoup its cost, officials said. 

The venue is scheduled to open in 2021. The Oak View Group will reserve a specific number of dates for University of Texas at Austin basketball games and other events. 

A tentative design of the interior of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System's Board of Regents.
A tentative design of the interior of the $338 million on-campus basketball arena that was approved on Thursday by the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents. Photo credit: The University of Texas

The arrangement — set to last for 35 years — means the university will get a new arena without having to spend any of its own money, school officials said. UT-Austin President Greg Fenves touted it as a first-of-its-kind deal. 

“This is a very exciting day for the University of Texas,” he said. 

Once completed, the arena is expected to replace the university’s 41-year-old Frank Erwin Center as the venue for basketball games, and outside events, like concerts, brought in by the corporation. 

Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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