Debate Heats Up As Burlington Rewrites Taxi Rules | Off Message

Debate Heats Up As Burlington Rewrites Taxi Rules


From left, MMR lobbyists Matt McMahon and Chris Rice, City Attorney Eileen Blackwood, and city councilors Sharon Bushor and Adam Roof. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • From left, MMR lobbyists Matt McMahon and Chris Rice, City Attorney Eileen Blackwood, and city councilors Sharon Bushor and Adam Roof.
Two Uber lobbyists, two city lawyers, three city councilors and the mayor’s chief of staff sat around a table Thursday night combing through a draft of Burlington’s new taxi ordinance and discussing the sticking points that remain.

Occasionally, Green Cab owner Charlie Herrick, who sat behind the two lobbyists, chimed in. So did several others in the audience. 

The conversation was civil, and city officials and Uber reps appear close to arriving at a set of rules they'll both accept. But afterwards Herrick upbraided the effort, telling reporters: "They are deregulating the industry. That is what is happening in this room."

Burlington is nearing the end of a months-long rewrite of its taxi regulations, prompted by the arrival last October of the ride-hailing company Uber, which connects passengers with drivers through an app. After the city attorney determined that the company was operating illegally, councilors approved a temporary operating agreement with Uber. They decided to overhaul the current ordinance so that it would apply alike to traditional cab companies and companies such as Uber, which considers itself a "transportation network company."

Thursday marked the third and final meeting of a group of stakeholders. Next, the city council’s ordinance committee will review the 23-page document before bringing it before the entire body for a vote.

The group discussed seemingly minute details as members reviewed the document, and at times the objections raised seemed trivial. Chris Rice, a partner at MMR, the local lobbying firm representing Uber, suggested it might not make sense to require an occasional Uber driver such as a "soccer mom" to post the "passenger bill of rights" in her vehicle. Councilors responded that the hypothetical mom could simply remove the paper when not driving Uber passengers. 

Those in the traditional taxi business still have major objections.

Herrick's biggest complaint: Under the new ordinance, the city will allow companies to conduct their own background checks on drivers, as long as those checks meet certain standards. "My feeling is the city administration is misguided in allowing any company to self-regulate," Herrick said. "Putting public safety in the hands of a for-profit company is a mistake."

Under the proposal, city officials could periodically audit a sampling of background checks to make sure companies are conducting them properly. 

Herrick and several city councilors also expressed concern that the new ordinance fails to address the biggest problem that's plagued the taxi industry for years: lack of enforcement. Airport commissioner and longtime taxi regulator Jeff Munger suggested that the city pay for "ghost riders" — enforcers who pose as passengers. 

While Uber and Burlington city officials appear to be close to coming to a compromise, the transportation company is also facing an investigation by the state Department of Labor, which is examining whether the company’s drivers should be treated as employees rather than independent contractors. 

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