Uber, Lyft proponents’ petition to recall Kitchen fails

Austin City Council Ann Kitchen, top right, listens as Council members and Mayor Steve Adler announce their support for her during a press conference outside City Hall on Monday, February 1, 2016. Kitchen, the District 5 representative, was the subject of a recall petition. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Austin City Council Ann Kitchen, top right, listens as Council members and Mayor Steve Adler announce their support for her during a press conference outside City Hall on Monday, February 1, 2016. Kitchen, the District 5 representative, was the subject of a recall petition. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

There will be no recall election anytime soon of Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen.

On Friday, the Austin City Clerk rejected the recall petition targeting Kitchen because it failed to meet all requirements the city charter establishes for recalling a city council member. That is good news and a victory not just for Kitchen, but for her constituents.

The recall attempt was aimed at punishing Kitchen for her stance on Uber and Lyft rather than removing her for any impropriety she had committed in her short term in office. Kitchen, as you might remember, took office in January 2015 as part of Austin’s new 10-1 governing system in which council members are elected from districts and the mayor is elected at-large. Her term runs through 2018.

It won’t be so easy for Austin4All, a political action committee behind the recall effort, to make a second attempt to pull Kitchen from office because the group must start over on collecting the almost 4,900 signatures of registered voters from Kitchen’s District 5 necessary to instigate a recall. That will take more time and more money.

Two members of Austin4All said the group will go to court in an effort to overturn the city clerk’s ruling. That is a longshot since the charter is clear on the rules.

If that fails, Austin4All members said they would mount a second petition drive to recall Kitchen. That will be tougher next time because people in Kitchen’s district will be more skeptical when asked to sign a petition regarding the council member they overwhelmingly elected. They might remember some of the false excuses that were used to acquire their signatures, such as to keep Uber and Lyft operating in Austin or protect barbeque restaurants.

The truth is that Austin4All sought to recall Kitchen, one of the Council’s hardest working members, for having the audacity to do her job as chairwoman of the council’s mobility committee with respect to writing rules governing Uber and Lyft. Those rules included a mandate that drivers for ride-hailing companies undergo fingerprint-based background checks as part of public safety requirements other vehicles for hire — taxis, limousines and even pedicabs – must follow to operate in Austin.

That put Kitchen in the crosshairs of Uber and Lyft, which said the fingerprint requirement would mess up their business models by reducing the pool of mostly part-time drivers, who would be put off by the time, effort and annoyance of being finger-printed. Fewer drivers would mean longer response times when customers hail Uber or Lyft drivers via smart phones, which would erode their competitive edge, and no doubt, their profit margins. Uber has not adequately explained why such a requirement is a deal-breaker in Austin, but not in Houston, where Uber operates despite a requirement for fingerprint checks.

All of the issues would have been better settled through a compromise between the City Council and Uber and Lyft, as San Antonio did by making fingerprint checks voluntary. Give credit to Austin Mayor Steve Adler for trying to achieve that through incentives.

Instead the issue is headed to a May 7 referendum forced on the city by Uber and Lyft, which used the disagreement with the council as an opportunity to write their own rules and set their own fees for operating in the city. Those measures are encompassed in an ordinance Uber and Lyft steered to the ballot to replace the current Council-approved one. It’s a huge power play that usurps Austin’s sovereignty. And it’s a gamble.

History tells us that May elections have low turnouts. That means anything can happen. Stay tuned.