Eager to resolve one of the most contentious issues to face the county in years, Broward County commissioners on Tuesday said they intend to soften laws to lure Uber back.
A majority of commissioners — Mark Bogen, Beam Furr, Marty Kiar, Chip LaMarca and Stacy Ritter — said they support laws allowing Uber and other app-based ride-hailing services to largely self-regulate. They said they'll vote to loosen a relatively new law governing "transportation network companies'' such as Uber, whose drivers use personal vehicles and connect to passengers via a smartphone app.
Commissioners voted 6-2, with Lois Wexler off the dais and Commissioners Dale Holness and Barbara Sharief dissenting, to have an Uber-friendly law drafted for a September vote.
Uber's public policy director for the Southeast United States, Trevor Theunissen, said he was "optimistic'' for a return to serving Broward County in September.
"We're optimistic, based on tonight's vote,'' he said. "We got a good vote.''
Uber representative Matt Gore, general manager in Florida, said during the meeting that the app won't be turned on just yet.
"I can't turn the app back on until the law is passed that gives me the certainty,'' he said.
Commissioners will now vote at an upcoming meeting to set a public hearing date, then hold a public hearing in September to finalize the changes.
"This is something we have to get done,'' Kiar said.
A proposal by Ritter for a Taxi Accountability Program also was embraced for a future vote. It would step up requirements for taxis, allowing customers to rate their experiences the way Uber customers can.
The consensus came after about five hours of passionate public input and commission deliberation. The backlash against commissioners after Uber stopped serving Broward on July 31 took a toll. Commissioners said their inboxes and voicemails were stuffed with profane and hostile messages. Ritter said her summer vacation was ruined, her husband was Uber-weary of the topic and she went to sleep and woke up thinking about nothing but Uber.
"I've been Ubered,'' Ritter said, "and I haven't enjoyed it, basically.''
Commissioners Holness, Sharief, Wexler and Mayor Tim Ryan disagreed with many of the proposed legal changes, saying they could leave the public exposed.
The majority said they favor a proposal from Bogen that removes a host of requirements in the county's new transportation network company law that Uber representatives objected to, chiefly those that resulted in drivers' names submitted to the county's public record. During debate, commissioners said they intend to change taxi laws as well, to treat taxi drivers the same.
A majority said fingerprint-based Level II criminal background checks conducted by the county are not necessary. Lower-level background checks could be conducted by a third-party vendor, if Uber or some other company didn't want to submit names to the county.
In addition, the Bogen proposal would remove a requirement that drivers get county chauffeur registrations and vehicle permits, and instead allows Uber or any other transportation network company to register its own drivers and vehicles, or allow the county to do it. The county would be able to audit the company's records to ensure county standards are met.
A requirement that the company maintain an around-the-clock customer service line and a Broward County office also would be removed under Bogen's proposal.
Commissioners also would seek payment for Uber's prior operations at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Aviation Director Kent George estimates Uber owes between $450,000 and $500,000.
Though Uber adheres to fingerprinting requirements in Columbus and Houston, Uber representatives said they did so before finding out it would be a significant deterrent to drivers, reducing the pool of applicants.
The proposal also allows Uber to show one blanket insurance policy, but it must meet state legal requirements.
Theunissen said he believes the company's insurance does meet state requirements.
"If the county disagrees with that, we will absolutely work to come into compliance,'' he said. "We will continue to seek a statewide solution.''
Commissioner Beam Furr said he predicts Uber-like technology connecting service providers with customers will spread and he didn't want the county to get in its way.
"What this innovation has done has changed the industry for the better,'' he said.
More than 100 people signed up to speak, though not all followed through.
Taxi, limo and shuttle drivers and businesspeople objected to any loosening of the rules. They've been highly regulated and forced to pay county fees, and are losing a business edge to companies such as Uber.
Many urged commissioners not to retreat from fingerprint and criminal background check requirements.
"I don't believe in electronic hitchhiking, which is basically what Uber is,'' said Lorraine Wilde, who is in the shuttle business with Yellow Cab's Jesse Gaddis.
As has been said at other debates in Broward since Uber entered the market last fall, many complained about traditional taxi service.
"The cabs had decades to improve their product,'' speaker Sam Sasser said. "They chose not to. That's not our fault. We welcome Uber as an improvement to our options. If the problem is that taxis are being over-regulated, then…let's deregulate the taxis so everyone is on a level playing field.''
In other action, Broward County commissioners Tuesday:
•Postponed a vote on giving free rides to the polls on Election Day.
•Set a Sept. 10 voting date to consider altering county law to allow release back into the community of feral cats that are sterilized and unadoptable. "It is anticipated that the proposed amendments will produce an immediate and significant increase in the live release rate for cats,'' a county memo reads, "and would bring relief to the county's shelter where most of the euthanized animals are feral cats.''
•Settled for $32,500 a lawsuit by Paulette Bond, a Broward County Transit bus passenger who on Dec. 23, 2011, fell from her seat and hit a metal post, incurring $33,000 in medical bills as result.