Could Uber leave Palm Beach County over tougher rules?


Palm Beach County commissioners were as subtle as a big red stop sign on Tuesday. After a nearly day-long debate, they voted 6-1 to tentatively approve rules for Uber and other freelance transportation firms that include a more onerous form of background checks than Uber wanted.

The rules, which include fingerprint-based “Level II” background checks, might drive Uber out of the county, Cesar Fernandez, the company’s public policy associate in Florida, said after the meeting. But he said the firm will work for a compromise.

“Uber is determining whether it stays or goes. Not us,” County Mayor Shelley Vana said at the meeting.

Commissioner Hal Valeche, the sole “no” vote, described the vote as a solution without a problem. Referring to last week’s shootings in Tennessee, he said, “I’m not reading about a Chattanooga-style shooting spree by Uber drivers.”

Although Commissioner Steven Abrams voted for the new rules, he said Uber already has made the county safer every time one of its drivers picks up someone who drank too much. He said that with Uber, “people are willing to accept a driver with a less stringent background check.”

But he, like Valeche, said he could see they were in a minority.

The vote Tuesday was the first of two required for a new county ordinance. The final vote is set for Aug. 18.

County staff posted a plan last week that would have allowed freelance driver firms to do their own background checks through an accredited agency. Those earlier proposed rules also would have allowed such firms to have regular liability insurance instead of the commercial insurance that was required of taxi and limousine companies.

Commissioners on Tuesday also battled Uber over insurance.

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay drew applause from the cab drivers in the audience when she asked one Uber driver, David Lowell of suburban Boca Raton, if his personal insurer knew he was driving on the side. The driver said he didn’t know.

Former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, now a lobbyist for the Florida Taxi Association, said private insurers can drop a motorist who hid from them the fact that he or she drove for Uber.

The rules approved Tuesday ultimately were changed to require freelance driver firms to have commercial insurance.

But it was the background check issue that dominated the debate. The taxi industry — in letters to the editor, town hall meetings, and even television ads — has pounded home its belief that the background check disparity is unfair. Neil Schiller, a lawyer for Yellow Cab, cited a New York study that said fingerprint-based checks are 99 percent accurate and checks such as those used by Uber are up to 43 percent flawed.

Kyle Cockream, executive director of the Tampa-area’s Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, told of an Uber driver ticketed outside Tampa’s sports arena who turned out to be using a Virginia license because her Florida license was indefinitely suspended and who was discovered to have a criminal background in Florida that included prostitution.

Eugene Reavis, chief of the county’s Consumer Affairs division, made the startling revelation Tuesday that an FBI agent had visited him to express concern that the less-stringent checks might encourage foreigners looking for easy employment. He said the agent urged that the county require Level II checks. Reavis said he agreed.

“Why are you objecting so strenuously to this?” Valeche asked Uber’s Fernandez. “We could adjourn this meeting if you said you’re willing to do it.”

Fernandez said Uber believes its checks, which it pays for, are better than the Level II checks. He said 70 percent of his drivers are part time and there’s a tremendous amount of turnover. An added level of checks would deter drivers and reduce the fleet, which would increase customers’ wait times. He said that in places where Uber has complied with such regulations, the number of drivers dropped by half.

He also said Level II checks go only to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and to the FBI. That prompted Abrams to retort, “Only the FBI?”

“Cesar, Cesar, Cesar. That seat you’re sitting in could not be any hotter,” Vice Mayor Mary Lou Berger told Fernandez.

McKinlay said she doesn’t want a teen assaulted in an Uber car “and that parent calls the county and says, ‘Why the heck wasn’t that person fingerprinted?’ ” She said she would rather put her daughter in a taxi because Uber drivers don’t have the higher checks.



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