Although the taxi cab industry in Austin is not often considered a power player in politics, individuals, top executives and owners have spent thousands of dollars in this city council election cycle. In particular, the election for the Austin City Council Place 3 seat has seen substantial amounts of money flow into it from the taxi cab companies. The race is between incumbent Randi Shade and newcomer Kathie Tovo. With well over $210,000 raised by the candidates, the taxi companies have accounted for nearly $18,000 of that money.
The influx of money can be attributed to disagreements within the industry by management and cab drivers as described in the Austin American Statesman article by Ben Wear. In the article, General Manager of Austin Yellow Cab Edward Kargbo is quoted as saying that they donated to “council members who we have found to be open to sitting down and hearing both sides.” The main debate is over whether legacy permits should be issued by the city council. The permits would allow drivers with at least 5 years of experience to bypass the three major taxi companies in Austin. The taxi companies are worried that this would lead to a loss of control in the marketplace. In the Place 3 election, Tovo has stated she is in favor of legacy permits whereas Shade has said she is opposed to it.
The large proportion of money that the taxi industry has devoted to this campaign has some people worried like Electric Cab owner Chris Nielsen who has said that City Council members were influenced by donations by cab executives. From The Statesman:
Yellow Cab and Austin Cab were granted five-year franchises in May 2010 by the council. Both votes were unanimous, although Morrison and Riley were not present when the Austin Cab vote occurred. The taxi drivers association at the time argued that given its concerns over the taxi fees and other issues, the term of the franchises should have been much shorter than five years.
The council’s response to the drivers’ concerns was to pass a resolution ordering the city’s staff to develop recommendations on a variety of issues involving taxis. In September, city staffers gave the council a briefing that included some immediate recommendations and items for further study.
Those recommendations included putting into the city code regulations for “low-speed electric vehicles,” a suggestion that has complicated the taxi dynamic this election season.
That proposed ordinance, which was to come before the council on April 21 , would allow the sole Austin company running those golf cart-like vehicles to potentially compete directly with taxis for short trips downtown. The company, Electric Cab of Austin, currently operates only as a shuttle contractor for hotels, rather than as a taxi service.
Two days before it was to come up, however, Shade raised concerns at a council work session about authorizing a new business while study of the overall taxi industry was ongoing. The council decided to table that matter for three to six months.
Electric Cab owner Chris Nielsen , who had flirted earlier in the year with running against Shade, claimed that she and other council members were influenced by the donations they had received from the cab executives. No, Shade said.
“It’s not the city’s job to create a special niche for one guy’s business,” she said.
Nielsen, still angry about the delay, said last week that on the May 14 election day he talked to Yellow Cab employees passing out Shade campaign fliers near the O. Henry Middle School polling place.
He said they told him they were from Houston and were paid by their company to travel to Austin and do the electioneering.
Not so, Shade said, after checking with Kargbo with Yellow Cab. Kargbo said that the Yellow Cab contingent did include employees from Houston, none of them drivers, and some nonemployees.
They were campaigning exclusively for Shade, he said.
Regarding Nielsen’s claim about the workers being on the Yellow Cab payroll during their Austin stay, Kargbo said: “That is 100 percent inaccurate. No one was paid to come up and do anything for Shade.”
With the election coming to a climax later this week, it is likely we are going to see even more money flow into the two campaigns. However, almost 12% of the money raised so far came from the taxi cab industry. It appears that of all the issues facing the city of Austin, the taxi cab debate is one of the most influential yet least talked about issues in the race. Yet the least talked about issue could be the one that decides the City Council Election for the Place 3 seat.