After spending a year fashioning tough regulations for ride-booking service Uber, Broward County commissioners unraveled the new rules Thursday evening.
But fatigued commissioners didn't finish the work. After debating the issue for seven hours, commissioners ended the meeting at midnight and postponed a final vote to Oct. 13.
They'd slowly ticked through a list of changes Uber said it needs if it is to return to Broward County.
The popular, app-based ride-booking service pulled out of Broward at the end of July in protest over the county's new regulations, which required drivers to submit fingerprints for criminal background checks, and required insurance coverage to meet state laws for commercial vehicles, among other things.
As commissioners debated each change individually, a majority voted to dismantle each one. However, the meeting ended without a vote on an Uber airport agreement, and without a vote on the overall new law. That pushes into October a possible return of Uber and its smaller competitor Lyft.
The County Commission has agreed to shift to a self-regulatory model, allowing Uber or any other "transportation network company'' or traditional taxi operation to vouch for its own drivers, vehicle and insurance coverage.
Fort Lauderdale activist Charlie King told commissioners they had no choice.
"This isn't business as usual,'' he said, "because the public got involved in your business for once. There's been a war. You guys have lost it. You've been routed. They had their boot on your neck. You guys need that app turned on now.''
Uber supplied a list of changes, and Commissioner Mark Bogen offered each one for them.
Commissioners dropped a geography test for drivers that Uber had opposed, and removed a requirement that Uber or other companies offer a 24-hour customer service line for emergencies. The county gave up authority for unlimited county audits, limiting them to two a year. They relinquished the power to conduct the audits themselves, too, agreeing the work would be done by a county-selected third party so Uber would give no records to the county.
The county also removed a requirement that the company vouch that it meets insurance requirements for "for-hire'' vehicles.
Mayor Tim Ryan said the removal of the word "for hire'' was critical to restoring Uber service. Uber drivers use personal vehicles that are used "for hire" only part of the time. The proposed law would allow companies to operate with a six-month temporary agreement after vouching that they believe they meet the "appropriate'' state insurance requirements. In the interim, the company would obtain state confirmation or a legislative change.
"We had to fall on this mushy ground,'' Ryan said.
Commissioner Stacy Ritter said leaving in the term "for hire'' would be tantamount to a "poison pill'' that would prevent Uber from doing business here. The insurance issue was a key sticking point.
"My constituents tell me that they want this [transportation network company] back in Broward County,'' Ritter said. "…They don't care about fingerprints, they don't care about insurance, they don't care about this, that or the other. What they care about is that when they pick up their phone they get a car in three or four minutes.''
Commissioner Lois Wexler said she refused to "play that game.'' She said her constituents have given mixed input.
"Some say, 'Watch out for the children who ride alone,' and others who say, 'I want my candy, and I don't care.'"
But commissioners maintained three other legal elements to which Uber had objected — that cars only be inspected by county-approved mechanics, and that cars six years or older be inspected twice annually. Also, perhaps most significantly, Uber or other ride-booking services wouldn't be able to hire ex-convicts released from prison in the last seven years.
That could prove to be a problem for Uber. Ritter said on Twitter that she feared the provision was a deal-killer. A vote to delete the convict ban got support from Ritter and Commissioners Marty Kiar, Chip LaMarca and Bogen, one vote short of a majority.
Uber's public policy director for the Southeast United States, Trevor Theunissen, and Uber's general manager for Florida, Matt Gore, said after the meeting that they're concerned the requirement can't be met because they said such databases don't exist nationally. However, they said they'd review the possibilities.
Commissioners still must take up issues related to service at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where cabs are heavily regulated.
Under what was proposed Thursday, companies like Uber would forge agreements with the airport separately, but would be required to do so and to pay any outstanding fees before operating in the county.
The separate airport agreement would determine what type of technology would be used to allow the county to detect vehicles serving passengers.
In a draft agreement offered by Uber, drivers would pay $4.50 for pickup at the airport. No fee would be paid for dropoff. The county had sought $3 fees for pickup and $3 for dropoff.
The ordinance also would allow a company to begin operating immediately on a 30-day temporary license after applying to the county, provided that all fees have been paid and an agreement has been signed.
Taxi industry representatives objected, saying many of the changes and the airport agreement were new and just distributed Thursday afternoon.
"We're doing a lot of changes. We're making a lot of sausage here,'' Aviation Director Kent George confirmed.
George Platt, a former county commissioner and a lobbyist for Go Airport Shuttle, told commissioners the process was not transparent because proposals kept streaming in even during the meeting.
"It's a regulation of nothing!'' he said. "It's a deregulation of almost everything''
Taxis will be given the option of following the self-regulatory model as well, County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey advised.
Rick Versace, president of the Florida Limousine Association, chastised commissioners, telling them, "We've given them every single thing that they asked for, when what we should have done is stood firm. ... You're saying public opinion is more important than public safety.''