San Francisco Government agencies increasingly in conflict with Uber

by Sean Riley

SF Examiner

So many San Francisco government entities are tussling with Uber right now, it’s a wonder City Hall’s basement eatery, the Mint Cafe, doesn’t also have a grievance with the company.

Two San Francisco transportation agencies filed legal missives Monday arguing Uber’s lax criminal background checks allow “sexual predators” to drive for the company, while Uber itself on Monday filed a legal motion against the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office to contest the release of Uber drivers’ addresses as public record when they file for business licenses.

Additionally, Supervisor Ahsha Safai has requested the City Attorney’s Office explore litigation to reveal Uber’s impact on traffic congestion. And San Francisco business interests asked for help to curtail the ride-hail company’s traffic impacts, the San Francisco Examiner has previously reported.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is also drafting a “white paper” on ride-hails to mitigate their impact on traffic congestion, at the behest of Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Uber’s conflicts with The City are no surprise to Ed Reiskin, director of transportation of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

“I’ve been seeing this pattern for many years now,” Reiskin said. At Uber, “there’s not a willingness to engage with The City on concerns, which are many.”

Uber did not respond to requests for comment on their background checks.

The SFMTA and the San Francisco International Airport jointly filed legal arguments for stricter criminal background checks for Uber drivers Monday with the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates ride-hails like Uber and Lyft.

Much to Reiskin’s dismay, the CPUC’s regulatory authority over Uber and Lyft leaves little legal ability for the SFMTA to do anything about Uber’s criminal check system, its impact to traffic or other issues concerning The City.

“I met with business leaders last week. They say, ‘Can’t you do something about all these vehicles?’” Reiskin said.

“It’s frustrating to be the director of transportation of San Francisco,” he continued, and to see Uber’s “incredible adverse impact on San Francisco and have no ability to do anything about it.”

It’s a matter of safety, according to the SFMTA’s legal filing.

The SFMTA argued Uber’s criminal checks did not identify many drivers with criminal histories that should have disqualified them to drive, one of which allowed a driver with “criminal convictions involving lewd acts against a child and sexual exploitation of children,” to drive on its platform.

These drivers were only discovered after research performed by District Attorney George Gascon, who previously sued Uber, the SFMTA wrote in its filing.

Uber uses third-party criminal checks that rely on name checks only, whereas taxi drivers use fingerprint checks linked to the FBI’s database. The SFMTA urged the CPUC to adopt a system similar to the taxi industry’s, as names can easily be faked.

In legal filings, Uber argued its third-party checks are as effective as FBI criminal background checks, but did not directly address those with criminal histories found on its platform.

Meanwhile, Uber’s fight with the Treasurer’s Office intensified as Uber moved to rebuff its subpoena for driver data, which it needs to request drivers file for business licenses to drive in San Francisco.

Uber San Francisco’s General Manager Wayne Ting wrote in a statement that the treasurer published drivers’ home addresses without their consent.

“We’ve asked The City to allow us to get the consent of drivers and to remove their personal information from the public website, but they have refused,” Ting wrote.

San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros said in a statement, “Uber will not get special treatment on taxes in San Francisco. My duty as treasurer is to fairly enforce the law, and I am confident this subpoena will be enforced by the court.”

Steven Hill, who helped craft San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system and is the author of “Raw Deal: How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers,” said Uber’s privacy woes are far-fetched.

“If you open a business, you forfeit a degree of privacy,” Hill said, noting that Uber has treated its drivers as independent contractors — essentially small-business owners — who are now required to file the same data as any business.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Peskin said The City’s recent legal win against Airbnb set the stage for future tussles with Uber.

“Businesses should be treated fairly and equally under the law, and that includes powerful special interests like Uber,” he said.

Yet even as San Francisco wrangles Uber on multiple fronts, state lawmakers are working to seemingly circumvent cities with state laws that would enact the ride-hail giant’s interests.

Senate Bill 182, authored by state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, would allow drivers to file for one business license to operate statewide, instead of city by city, which may circumvent Cisneros’ effort to request drivers file in San Francisco.

Bradford’s bill outlines concerns, and reads, “Since most [ride-hail] drivers only drive part-time, it is cost-prohibitive to secure licenses for every jurisdiction that they work in.”

As state lawmakers draft more bills loosening ride-hail regulations, Uber has stepped up its statewide campaign contributions.

Though the Examiner found no contributions to Bradford from Uber, the ride-hail giant contributed $50,000 last November to the Technet Political Action Committee, which contributed to lawmakers across the state, including $3,000 to state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, in November 2016.

Locally, opposition to Uber is on an agency-by-agency basis, with one exception.

When Uber ran self-driving cars without permits that the California DMV said were needed, Mayor Ed Lee spoke directly to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and demanded he remove the vehicles from city streets.

But as far as these larger regulatory concerns go?

“Mayor Ed Lee has been missing in action on these companies for several years now,” Hill said. “It’s a big problem. It means The City is not speaking in one voice.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a legal motion made by Uber against the Treasurer’s Office’s subpoena as a lawsuit.