Did a Donor Persuade Mayor Turner to Refuse Uber's Wishes?

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On Thursday, Houston bar owner Bobby Heugel blasted out a photo of Mayor Sylvester Turner and  Yellow Cab lobbyist and spokeswoman Cindy Clifford on social media, with this message: "This picture tells the story of why Houston won't adjust regulations for ride-sharing companies like Uber. It's about campaign finances."

Like many bar owners, Heugel, who owns Anvil Bar & Refuge, has praised Uber as a solution to reducing drunk driving — and thus bringing more people out to the bars on rainy Friday evenings and getting them home safely, when perhaps without the smartphone-hailed ride they would have stayed home.

But after Uber left Austin earlier this spring, when the city refused to deregulate the ride-share service and get rid of fingerprint background checks, Uber threatened to leave Houston, too. Nearly identical regulations exist here, rules that Uber has claimed are too onerous, expensive and lead to a shortage of drivers because, apparently, thousands do not want to go through the city's process in order to legally drive. 

Uber has consistently called on Houston to deregulate the industry and stop making its drivers have to go through the same requirements as cabbies. The city has refused to comply with Uber's wishes — and Heugel claims the core reason is because of Mayor Sylvester Turner's personal and financial relationship with Yellow Cab's Cindy Clifford. 

"It's Mayor Turner's first year, and he clearly is being guided by money on this issue," Heugel wrote. "Do we have a Mayor that sacrifices progressive transportation solutions and lower DUI rates so he can maintain his fundraising connections? That's a pretty disturbing preview about what type of leadership will exist under the Turner administration."

A person does not have to dig very far to notice the close ties between Turner and Clifford. According to Turner's campaign finance reports from January 2015 until he was elected in December, Clifford donated $10,000 to him. An associate of hers at her PR firm, The Clifford Group, donated another $1,700. Clifford was also on Turner's campaign finance committee, and once he was elected, Clifford was the chair of his inauguration committee. Her close relationship with the mayor's office also extends to Mayor Annise Parker, who threw Clifford an elaborate birthday party at Parker's house just two days before bids were due for a highly sought, multi-million-dollar contract with the airport system (a contract that Clifford's business partner, Houston 8, managed to win). Turner was at that birthday bash, too.

The mayor's office and Clifford denied their close relationship has influenced the debate over deregulating Uber.

"I think Mayor Turner cares deeply about the safety of citizens, and I don't think that's influenced at all by his friendships," Clifford said. "He has to represent the entire city, and I have full faith in his determination of [permitting] processes [for drivers]."

Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Turner, says that Turner's decision to hold Uber to the same standards as taxis—requiring drivers to undergo a drug test, physical, and comprehensive fingerprint background check—is exclusively tied to public safety. And from the sounds of it, Turner is never going to budge on those regulations—even if Uber starts up again with its threats.

"This is about public safety. The mayor is not willing to compromise on that," Evans said in an email. "He has said he wants Uber in Houston. That has not changed. However, he has also said that if he has to choose between public safety and Uber leaving, it will not be a close call."

The buddy-buddy relationships between Turner and the cab industry may exist, but that doesn't mean this public safety argument is full of air: Last year, an Uber driver accused of raping a woman passed Uber's background check — one that the city claims is not thorough enough — but had never gone through the city's fingerprint background check, which is linked to an FBI database. Turns out, the guy had spent 14 years in federal prison on felony drug charges. (He was no-billed for the rape charge.)

Still, Uber continues to insist its own background check is sufficient, and therefore the city's intervention is unnecessary. An Uber spokesman, who declined to be named per company policy, claims that these regulations are so onerous that more than 20,000 people have decided against becoming drivers because they didn't want to go through the city's process, pay the $39 fee for the background check, or potentially more if insurance doesn't cover the physical.

Uber would not tell us how many drivers it has, saying it's proprietary information, but did tell us that this 20,000 figure, representing those who quit, is more than half of the drivers who are even on the road  who begin the application process with Uber but stop short of undergoing the city's regulations (see correction below).

That would mean Uber may have more than 40,000 less than 20,000 drivers in Houston — yet claims that because of these regulations, thousands more are barred from entering the market, limiting the supply of rides and causing pesky surge prices, thus limiting Uber's growth in the Houston market. 

By comparison, Clifford said that there are 1,600 cabs on the road, 900 of which are Yellow Cabs. 

"Our business has taken a hit. [Uber] has definitely created a competitive market," Clifford said. "We are all for a competitive market. We're not against competition — what we're against is unfair competition."

As to Uber's claims that the city's process is so complicated that it takes drivers months to complete, the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department provided the Houston Press data from an internal audit as well as survey results from drivers who were asked how long it took to get the license. According to the audit, which covered the period from November 2014, when Uber became city-regulated, to August 2016,  the average time it took for someone to get a license was eight days. According to the driver survey, nearly half of drivers received their license in less than a week. The sample size couldn't be disclosed because Uber sued the city to prevent it from releasing its "proprietary information."

"The idea that the city's background check process is onerous or takes a long time for drivers to get in the system, that's just simply not what we're seeing on our end," said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director of the Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. "Is it possible that many drivers go on Uber's website and don't make it through the entire application process? We have no way of verifying that— but what we can say is that the number of drivers coming in to get licensed with the City of Houston is growing. It continues to grow every month."

As the Super Bowl approaches, nobody — not the out-of-towners who rely on Uber or the Houstonians who hate driving and especially drunk driving — wants to see Uber leave. From the perspective of bartenders like Heugel, who see drunk twenty-somethings leaving the bar every weekend in Ubers, it simply spells disaster.

Turner's political buddy-buddy associations aside, the available data begs the question: Would Uber really leave the fourth-largest city in the country over an eight-day process it dislikes that is in place specifically for rider safety? 

Maybe if Uber thinks the mayor has already made up his mind against the company.

Correction, August 26, 10:45 a.m.: Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock sent us the following statement to clarify who the pool of 20,000 individuals represent; we regret the error: "I think I misunderstood your question about how to categorize the [20,000] individuals who did not complete the City's process. There are more people who chose not to go through the process than those that chose to complete it. So the number of drivers is less than 20,000, not double."
She also added: "The city's licensing process costs between $150-$200. The $39  fingerprint background check is just one of the 10 steps they are required to complete."

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