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Council rolls over mayor with Uber and Lyft

Ashland City Council overruled Mayor John Stromberg's veto Tuesday night on an ordinance to allow Uber and Lyft to operate in Ashland.

The changes will go into effect in 30 days after Tuesday's 4-2 vote, and it does not require the mayor's signature.

The council tried to negotiate with the transportation network companies to provide stricter requirements for drivers that are more closely aligned with what taxi cab companies use, including more in-depth background checks and requirements to have vehicles that can transport wheelchairs.

But the companies wouldn’t budge, and after more than a year of trying to negotiate, the majority of the council felt that it was worth settling on the companies’ terms.

The ordinance originally passed with a majority vote Feb. 5, but the mayor vetoed it Feb. 10, citing a list of concerns, including large corporations paving their way into Ashland and their impact on local taxi companies.

A number of Ashland taxi employees spoke at the public forum portion of the discussion Tuesday, including owner of Cascade Airport Shuttle Nancy Buffington.

The rules set in place for taxi companies should apply to the ride-sharing companies, she said. The rules are there to uphold safety for customers, such as a required fingerprint background check for drivers through the Ashland Police Department.

“What company would have an objection to having their employees fingerprinted?” Buffington asked. “All (Uber/Lyft) are interested in is an online seven-year look back, and I don’t think that’s sufficient.”

Buffington cited a Denver Post article that said Uber allowed 57 people with past criminal or motor-vehicle offenses to drive.

Several Medford Uber or Lyft drivers are listed on yellowpages.com, Buffington said, and she has a recorded call with one agreeing to pick her up in Ashland.

She said her business has been in operation since 1984, and she’s owned it since 2007.

“We have a very loyal following, we rely on our locals as our bread and butter,” Buffington said. “I’m afraid I might have to raise my rates for the first time in 11 years.”

She said she expects she’ll lose business in the tourist season, even though her flat-rate service is cheaper than Uber’s and Lyft’s.

Katharine Cato, Chamber of Commerce Sales and Marketing Director and Travel Ashland Director, said Ashland relies heavily on its tourism.

“Tourism is the underpinning of Ashland’s economy and visitors are really important to us,” Cato said. “Ashland welcomes more than 350,000 visitors a year, and about one-third of those are coming to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.”

She said having Uber and Lyft operate in Ashland could be a big benefit to the tourists who are probably used to using those services in their hometowns.

“The geographic market of people coming to visit Ashland spans across the entire West Coast, if not the whole country,” Cato said.

She said it could enable visitors who may be on the outskirts of town to have transportation and allow them to travel between wineries and bars safely.

Stromberg said he supports the council in their decision.

“I brought some information up that I felt it would be good for them to consider and they voted the way they did and I’m fine with that,” Stromberg said. “I support them and I’m going to try to help them as this relationship unfolds.”

Although the ordinance passed, there’s no guarantee the companies will begin serving Ashland.

Katrina Brown, Assistant City Attorney, said she hasn’t heard back from Lyft. She said she’s waiting on comments from Lyft regarding the new ordinance. The last she heard from the Lyft representative was that they would most likely wait until spring for the tourism season to pick up before bringing their service into town.

Lyft Policy Communications Manager Lauren Alexander gave a statement to the Ashland Tidings Wednesday.

“Lyft applauds the City of Ashland’s efforts to bring more efficient and reliable transportation options and expanded economic opportunities to their residents and visitors. We look forward to beginning operations in Ashland soon and won’t stop working to bring ridesharing to all of Oregon,” Alexander said.

Adam Hanks, Assistant City Administrator, said the last he heard from the Uber representative was that he was transitioning to another job. He introduced Hanks to his replacement representative, Caleb Weaver, and said that there was indication that Uber intends to service Ashland.

Uber representative Nathan Hambley gave a statement to the Ashland Tidings Wednesday.

“Considering the community support that’s been expressed for ridesharing in Ashland, we look forward to serving riders and drivers there in the near future,” Hambley said.

Councilor Rich Rosenthal, who voted against the ordinance, moved to have staff bring back an update a year from now. The motion passed unanimously.

“Ordinances can be modified,” Rosenthal said. “At least we can do a follow-up. Maybe we don’t need amendments, but we can at least have a discussion.”

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Uber driver Brian Savage drives to the Medford airport in February. Savage, who has a business license to drive for both Uber and Lyft, says his work provides income and a flexible schedule. Daily Tidings file photo