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Ashland on Uber, Lyft: 'More complicated than expected'

The City Council moved forward Tuesday on opening up possibilities of allowing Uber and Lyft services, proceeding with a real estate deal to make possible an affordable housing project, and choosing a new council member.

Council seat vacancy

All four councilors picked Jackie Bachman and George Kramer as finalists to replace Councilor Greg Lemhouse who resigned in February.

Bachman is serving as the chair of ad hoc Senior Center committee and a member on Housing and Human Services Committee.

Kramer is a historic preservation consultant. Kramer served on several committees in the past and has professionally worked with the city on multiple projects.

The council, comprised of only four councilors after Councilor Traci Darrow resigned Monday, also picked Geos Institute director Tonya Graham as a finalist. She received two votes. Mary Cowden and Shaun Moran each got one vote.

The councilors and the mayor will conduct one-one interview with the finalists and make a final decision on March 20.

The council also has 60 days — starting Tuesday, March 6 — to fill Darrow’s seat. Applicants who applied for Lemhouse’ seat are eligible to apply for Darrow’s. The council hasn’t decided on a specific timeline for the process.

Both seats are up for election in November.

Uber, Lyft services

The Ashland City Council first discussed about the potential of having ride-hailing services in November. It agreed more information is needed.

City Attorney David Lohman, who had expected to draft an ordinance by now, said the issue “turns out to be more complicated than expected.”

The Medford City Council approved an ordinance in October that placed some regulation on the services, such as a requirement that drivers must take the most direct route. Central Point, on the other hand, has voted to deregulate the industry.

Assistant City Attorney Katrina Brown said an Uber representative has urged the city to adopt Medford’s ordinance if Ashland chooses to regulate its business.

“We have unique problems in Ashland that other cities in the region don’t usually consider,” Brown said, referring to congestion and a large number of tourists during Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Among seven issues brought up by staff, the council was most concerned about how to regulate background checks.

Staff raised concerns about Uber’s background check system due to its limitations, but also said Uber won’t be running in town if the city puts strict regulations on the procedure.

“The problems coming from that have been debated in other cities,” Lohman added.

Per current city ordinance, taxi drivers are required to go through a fingerprint-based background check by Ashland police. The current procedure allows employers to learn the whole criminal history of their drivers, Brown said.

But Uber is said to oppose the procedure, refusing to provide services in cities that proposed fingerprint background checks. Uber allows its drivers — who are independent contractors — to undergo a background check through a third-party company. According to Lohman, Uber’s background check system limits a criminal record search to the most recent seven years.

“So if somebody was convicted eight years ago … when they sign up for Uber now, they won’t be identified in the background check,” he said of the worst case scenario.

Medford — along with Salem, Portland and Bend — accepts Uber’s background check system, according the cities’ ordinances.

Councilor Rich Rosenthal cautioned that Ashland “might be in a ‘take it or leave it’ situation” if the council approves an ordinance that is “too far off from Medford’s.”

“I don’t want to get too crazy with background checks, making it more onerous than what Medford does, because we might be losing an opportunity entirely,” Rosenthal said.

Councilor Dennis Slattery said the decision on background check “needs some time.”

Slattery brought up an idea of having an industry review board, allowing local key players in the industry to routinely evaluate the ride-sharing services. He also asked the possibility to review and amend policy in the future.

“Once we formed this (ordinance), how do we make sure it is being done well?” he asked. “We know there are issues surrounding this — if it happens, how and who will deal with that?”

Lohman said the council can always amend the city’s ordinance.

In the end, the council preliminarily agreed to allow a flat application fee, a surcharge during peak hours and requiring insurance and the same regulations for both taxi companies and vehicles-for-hire services. Councilors asked for more information on how to ensure accessibility to wheelchair friendly vehicles and how to implement designated drop-off and pick-up sites.

Staff will draft and present an ordinance to the council at its meeting on April 17.

Surplus land

The council declared three city-owned lots as surplus property to allow the city to eventually sell them.

City staff said the lots have no value to the city and by selling them, they could be developed to something that could benefit the city.

“We already have had conversations with interested parties,” Director of Administrative Services Mark Welch said.

Two of the lots, one on West Hersey Street and one on East Main Street, are being used as impromptu parking lots.

The lot in an alley on East Main Street provides five spots for neighboring business, including Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland Springs Hotel and the Jewel Box.

“Knowing that we have parking shortage downtown, why would we want to sell five parking spaces and then have something built there that would generate the need for more parking?” Rosenthal asked.

Welch said the city doesn’t charge any parking fee at the lot and doesn’t have any official agreement that would restrict the city from selling the lot. Interim Assistant to City Administrator Adam Hanks said by declaring the lots surplus, the city could gain some leverage to create a formal financial relationship with surrounding businesses.

The third lot, located on Clay Street, made headlines recently after a nonprofit proposed to buy or lease it for a tiny house project. City Administrator John Karns said the city has been in negotiations to sell the lot to the Housing Authority of Jackson County so they could build a low-income housing project there.

HAJC is still in negotiation with Parks and Recreation Department to also obtain the adjacent 2.5-acre lot on Engle Street.

Briscoe School property

The council moved the approval of purchasing Briscoe School to its next meeting due to some missing information, Stromberg said.

Lohman said the Ashland School District Board and the city is still negotiating and declined to release any further information.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have another executive session before the approval,” Lohman said.

Briscoe School on North Main Street, is one of three contenders for a new City Hall location. The school, closed by Ashland School District in 2004 due to an estimated $3 million worth of deferred maintenance, currently houses the Oregon Child Development Center and Lithia Arts Guild.

— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com.