Race, politics arise in proposed regulation of airport cabs, ride-hailing companies
By David Pendered
Proposed legislation to regulate taxies and ride-hailing companies at Atlanta’s airport is so racially charged, and politically laden, that a committee of the Atlanta City Council punted the measure to the full council for it to consider Monday.
The discussion in the council’s Transportation Committee ended with Atlanta Councilmember Keisha Lance Bottoms asking ride-hailing companies to explain to her why they won’t pick up passengers at her home in southwest Atlanta after, “a certain time of day.” Bottoms voiced her request after the committee voted 5-2 in favor of her motion to move the legislation from committee to the full council.
Now that the paper is before the full council, the paper could be amended and adopted without further ado. Whether that happens depends on the nature of conversations held among the administration, council members, and industry representatives in the interim between the Sept. 24 committee meeting and the council meeting Monday.
Transportation Committee Yolanda Adrean had urged members to hold the paper and resolve issues in a future committee meeting. That’s the best way to ensure the integrity of the legislative process, she said.
“The transparency is here and now, in committee,” Adrean said. “I’d like to do it in committee, with the public sitting in front of us. But I can tell from how people are lining up, that’s not going to happen.”
As it now stands, the legislation would require ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, to conduct background checks of potential drivers, just as regular cab and limo companies must do. The background checks include a fingerprint component.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder raised the racial issue in a letter Holder sent to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Holder’s letter contended the conducting of fingerprint checks by ride-hailing companies, “can have a discriminatory impact on communities of color.”
Holder represents Uber, which has retained Holder’s law firm, Covington & Burlin, to advise Uber on safety matters. Uber asked Holder to write a letter in June to New Jersey lawmakers and to elected officials in Chicago, according to a report in bostonglobe.com. Reed received a letter expressing a similar sentiment.
The account that appears to provide the most complete and concise description of Holder’s posture on the issue appears in a June 15 story in thehill.com:
- “Holder wrote three letters earlier this month to local and state officials urging them not to require fingerprint-based background checks for purposes unrelated to law enforcement.
- “’When I served as U.S. Attorney General, I asked Attorneys General in every state and Cabinet secretaries throughout the federal government to consider how they could eliminate policies and regulations that impose unnecessary burdens on individuals reentering society,’ he said in the letters.
- “’For non-law enforcement purposes, fingerprint-based background checks are just such a practice.”
- “The June 2 letters Holder sent to the mayor of Atlanta, an alderman in Chicago and a state senator in New Jersey never mentioned Uber or the ride-hailing industry.”
Atlanta Councilmember Felicia Moore cited Holder’s position during debate in the Transportation Committee’s meeting.
“Trying to couch it as a racial issue is distasteful,” Moore said. “I think it’s a bit distasteful because fingerprints are just one part of the whole. What we’re saying is that you [ride-hailing companies] can regulate who you have as drivers.”
Later in the meeting, Bottoms indicated that Holder’s letter had piqued her interest.
“I want to hear some guidance on that,” Bottoms said.
Fingerprint checks weren’t the only issue raised about the pending legislation by advocates of the vehicle-for-hire industry.
The industry wants to operate cabs that are older than seven years, as prescribed in the pending legislation. This request was filed by Kevin Ross, a familiar face at City Hall who represents the Atlanta Taxicab Owners Association.
Uber expressed confidence that it can work through the details of implementing the new program, including a bullpen to be reserved for ride-hailing companies and a proposed $4 fee that’s to fund safety and security measures. This observation came from Nick Juliano, Uber’s southeast public affairs manager.
Councilmember Kwanza Hall said during the debate that many of the unresolved issues can be handled during the implementation process.
Moore said the concerns should be resolved in a future committee meeting. Moore made that motion and it was defeated.
Bottoms said the concerns can be resolved before the council meeting. Bottoms’ motion to pass the paper out of committee and to full council, with no recommendation, was approved by a 5-2 vote. Adrean and Moore voted against the motion.
Bottoms raised her question with the ride-hailing companies after the committee approved her motion to advance the paper.
“There’s just one other thing since we do have our leaders here,” Bottom said. “This is a separate matter, but I would like to know why we can’t get pickup in southwest Atlanta after a certain time of day from our shared-ride drivers.
“So if someone wants to let me know that, offline, why people call for, make arrangements from my home at a certain time of the evening, I understand there’s a proximity issue, but I just cannot imagine that happens all over Atlanta.”