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Uber lobby gets inside access at City Hall as city deregulates taxis

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Taxi companies feel they're not being heard.


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Radio Cab driver Darin Campbell can't get a meeting with Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick and his staff, though he's the elected representative for Portland's 1,200 taxi drivers.
Uber is getting inside access to City Hall officials as they deregulate Portland’s taxi industry to accommodate Uber and Lyft, San Francisco-based companies that hire drivers who turn private cars into taxis hailed by smartphone.

Newly filed lobbying reports show Uber’s five lobbyists had 34 sit-down meetings and 56 phone conversations with City Hall staffers in the second quarter of the year, as the city was launching a pilot project to ease Uber and Lyft into the Portland market.

During the same quarter, the Transportation Fairness Alliance, a coalition of local taxi companies, reported four personal meetings at City Hall and one phone conversation.

Raye Miles, president of Broadway Cab, said she and the alliance lobbyist met early on with Commissioner Steve Novick, who is spearheading taxi deregulation, but found him and his staff “wholly unresponsive” to their issues. “It feels as though they had a predetermined path they were going to take,” Miles said.

Darin Campbell, the elected driver representative for the city’s 1,200 taxi drivers, said he’s been unable to meet with Novick and his point person leading the taxi deregulation effort.

“I have sent multiple emails; I have texted Bryan Hockaday, his adviser on this issue, probably 15 times,” said Campbell, who drives for Radio Cab. “He usually blows me off.”

Several Lewis & Clark law students also are frustrated. They’ve been diligently researching, on their own time, one of the thorniest issues cities face in regulating the taxi industry — how to serve passengers in wheelchairs. The law students have met with or scheduled appointments with the other four City Council members to share their latest findings, but got no response to two email requests to meet with Novick, said Michael Schultz, a local attorney recruited by a Lewis & Clark dean to advise the students.

Last Tuesday, after the law students met with Commissioner Dan Saltzman and an aide to Commissioner Amanda Fritz, they looked through a window and observed Novick and Hockaday meeting with two Uber lobbyists, Schultz said.

“When an industry enjoys that kind of access, it’s challenging to break through,” he said. “It’s easy to understand how those representing the public interest who have a lower number of contacts may be outmaneuvered.”

Equal access?

Novick said it’s common for people who aren’t getting what they want from the city to complain about a lack of access.

He’s had only “minimal public contact” with Uber, Novick said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to think Bryan’s more receptive to requests from Uber and Lyft than any of the regular taxi companies.”

Novick said he met once with the Lewis & Clark law students several months ago, but his staff never forwarded their July 23 and Aug. 4 email requests to meet again.

Hockaday doesn’t dispute that he and other City Hall staff have met more with Uber than with local taxi industry leaders.

“They’ve asked for more meetings,” he said. “It’s not a difference of ease of access.”

Hockaday acknowledged he’s refused to meet with Campbell, the taxi driver representative. But he said he reached out to the Lewis & Clark law students, without success.

Aggressive lobbying

Uber, which has grown into a $50 billion worldwide company in just five years, has the money to hire top lobbyists as it forces its way into heavily regulated taxi markets, often defying local ordinances. Those include David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, and Mark Wiener, the go-to political consultant in Portland local government. Wiener advised the majority of sitting city commissioners during their elections.

Willamette Week newspaper reported Dec. 31 that it was Wiener who brought together Uber lobbyists, Mayor Charlie Hales, Novick and their aides at his home Dec. 13. After that meeting, Hales promised temporary city regulations so Uber could enter the market by April, a promise he fulfilled when the four-month pilot project began late that month.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Radio Cab driver Darin Campbell, outside City Hall, says taxi drivers are getting excluded while Portland deregulates the taxi industry. 
Lobby reports filed with the city Auditor’s Office show Wiener had seven phone conversations with City Hall officials in the second quarter and one personal meeting in the first quarter. But that was the tip of the iceberg for Uber’s lobbying efforts.

Uber, which declined to comment for this story, reported spending $12,616 to lobby City Hall during the first quarter of the year, about one-third of the total reported by all lobbies. Broadway Cab and the Transportation Fairness Alliance had the second-highest spending, at $7,500.

Lyft didn’t file first- or second-quarter lobbying reports on time with the Auditor’s Office. However, the company said Friday that it was filing late, and emailed records to the Tribune showing it spent $19,967 in the first quarter.

During the second quarter, the lobbying gap mushroomed. Uber reported spending $50,173 — 69 percent of the total lobbying expenditures reported by all entities at City Hall. Broadway Cab and the taxi coalition spent $7,500.

Lyft ‘s totals don’t appear yet in the database, but its emailed report shows it spent $36,027.

Uber has spent seven times what Pembina Pipeline Corp. spent to lobby City Hall the first six months of the year, a period when the Canadian company’s $500 million propane export terminal was vetted by the Planning and Sustainability Commission and then rejected by Hales, who denied the company a City Council hearing.

Selective input

Leaders of the Transportation Fairness Alliance have repeatedly complained they aren’t getting listened to as the city plots taxi deregulation.

In contrast to most stakeholder and work groups deployed by the city, Novick didn’t include the most affected parties — taxi industry representatives — on the Private For Hire Innovation Task Force, which was charged to recommend terms for the pilot test and permanent rules as the city deregulates the industry.

Taxi industry representatives were often flustered when they heard misinformation at the task force meetings and they couldn’t respond, said Stephen Kafoury, lobbyist for Broadway Cab and the Transportation Fairness Coalition.

In contrast, it’s common to see Hockaday huddling with Brooke Steger, Uber’s Northwest general manager, at task force meetings, Campbell said.

“At every break, it’s Brooke Steger and Bryan Hockaday running off to a corner,” he said.

Often Lyft representatives are part of those sideline discussions.

“We’re always open to working with the city,” said Chelsea Wilson, Lyft spokeswoman. “We believe that that’s a good way for crafting new regulations for these new industries.”

In the first quarter, Uber lobbyists scored 19 personal meetings at City Hall, including one with Novick, two with his transportation director Leah Treat, three with his chief of staff Chris Warner, and 10 with Hockaday.

Uber also reported two personal meetings with Hales and three with Josh Alpert, the mayor’s chief of staff. Uber also reported 12 phone conversations with Alpert and 12 with Hockaday.

The taxi coalition had 11 personal meetings at City Hall the first quarter, but six of those were with Commissioner Nick Fish, who has been critical of Uber. The coalition got one meeting each with Alpert, Novick and Hockaday.

During the second quarter, the imbalance grew.

Uber’s lobbyists were in City Hall for insider meetings about once every two business days. They met 23 times with Hockaday, nine times with Alpert, twice with Novick, four times with Warner and twice with Mayor Hales.

The taxi coalition met once with Hockaday in the second quarter, once with Fritz, and once each with Saltzman and Fish aides.

Uber lobbyists reported 33 phone conversations with Hockaday the second quarter, 10 with Alpert and two with Novick. The taxi coalition reported just one phone conversation.

Schultz, the lawyer mentoring the Lewis & Clark law students, was shocked to hear that Uber was doing so much behind-the-scenes lobbying while a city task force charged with recommending new rules meets in open sessions.

“What’s the purpose of a task force if the elected officials are conducting parallel negotiations?” Schultz said. “It renders a task force a straw house.”


By Steve Law
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What’s next?

The Portland City Council is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20, to consider permanent rules that allow “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft to operate here along with regular taxi companies.


Law students delve into wheelchair-accessible taxi issues

A group of Lewis & Clark law students initially researched ordinances other cities have adopted to deregulate taxi service and accommodate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

Once they delved in the issue, the law students decided to focus on wheelchair-accessible taxis. That’s because their research showed no city around the country has yet figured out how to serve that constituency well and pay for the service, said Michael Schultz, a Portland lawyer advising the students.

After meeting some initial resistance, the students got consideration of their Portland Equal Access Plan by the Private For Hire Innovation Task Force appointed by Commissioner Steve Novick, Schultz said. That plan called for the city to set a minimum response time for picking up wheelchair-bound taxi passengers, and gradually reduce it until it equalled the service for other passengers.

The law students later researched the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Uber's claim that its vehicles don’t have to comply. They also found “defects” in the way the city is analyzing response-time data for wheelchair-accessible taxis in the pilot project, Schultz said, and that’s among the findings they hope to share with city officials.

Leslie Hallan, a representative of the law students, disputed the contention by Bryan Hockaday, Novick’s point person for taxi deregulation, that he reached out to the law students.

Hockaday did try to join a June 23 meeting they scheduled with Joe VanderVeer, the former chairman of the Portland Commission on Disability, but they asked him not to stay, Hallan said.

“In no way is Mr. Hockaday's prior attempt to crash a private meeting a legitimate substitute for students' later requests to meet with Commissioner Novick,” Hallan said in an email.

VanderVeer sent a followup June 23 email to Hockaday apologizing that he was excluded, but encouraged him to have a future meeting with the students.

“They have a lot of good ideas,” VanderVeer wrote Hockaday.

Such a meeting never occurred.