Sunday, April 23, 2017

Kenner Council Punts Zahn/Sigur Uber Money Grab

If you’ve read this blog before or if you’re unfortunate enough to actually know me, you know that I’m a “Limited Government” guy. I firmly believe that the less government involvement in my life, the better.

So, when I learned months ago that the Kenner City Council was discussing an ordinance to regulate Uber, Lyft and other Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), I was torn.

On the one hand, Kenner has been behind in the regulation and oversight of companies like Uber and Lyft and, yes, I believe that they should be regulated. While on the surface Uber and Lyft (and their accommodation companions like AirBNB) are primarily middlemen connecting consumers to individuals offering their personal items and time for a fee, TNCs are essentially providing vehicles for hire (albeit without the cost of owning their fleet, local licensing and other regulations faced by other “Vehicles for Hire” companies like Taxicabs or Limo Companies).

As a “Vehicle for Hire” company, a term that the TNCs distance themselves from, I believe that Uber, Lyft and others should face the same licensing, insurance and other regulations (and fees) that burden Taxi and Limo Companies especially regarding public safety issues like criminal background checks, drug tests, and licensing.
If there are going to be regulations, there needs to be regulations for all companies in an industry. The playing field must be level.

On the other hand, while Kenner was way behind in regulating Uber and Lyft, I really didn’t want Mental Midgets like Lyin’ Ben Zahn, Lenny Cline, Mike Sigur and others involved in regulating anything related to the economy and certainly not the New Economy. Remember this is the group that decided that Kenner shouldn’t allow boat owners to park their boats in their driveways before boat owners rebelled forcing Sigur, Cline and the minions to take a step back for a year.  

I mean, let’s get real: Lenny Cline couldn’t form a three-person committee to study TNCs (with himself as one of the three) without screwing it up; the duplicitous, ethically-challenged Sigur, while professing the proposed ordinance was about “Public Safety”, simply saw Dollar Sign$ and money from new fees pouring into Kenner; and Lyin’ Ben isn’t qualified to write a grocery list let alone an ordinance impacting the future of transportation.

And, if it wasn’t a money grab, why only limit the fees to rides picked up at the Airport, since there are no other “Transportation Facilities” in Kenner?

I know that Lyin’ Ben keeps professing to have had little to do with the ordinance but his money-grubbing fingerprints were all over the legislation (as were the obvious errors in the proposed legislation that would have landed Kenner in court for years).

On more than one occasion, Zahn publicly stated that doing anything – even attaching a small fee like $.50 per Uber trip, would be “something”.

Yes Lyin’ Ben, it would be “something” – more shekels for the Kenner Treasury. Adding a fee would amount to nothing, I repeat nothing Mr. Sigur, for the public safety of consumers using TNCs or for other drivers navigating Kenner’s roads.

The truth is, I’m sure Uber and Lyft would much prefer a $.50 fee than the $4+ fees proposed by Kenner.  But, $6 per passenger for Airport Shuttles? Who on the Kenner City Council didn’t communicate with the shuttle company and learn that they are under a bid contract and can’t increase their fees to accommodate the Zahn/Sigur money grab?  

So, after months of debate (and wasted time), the Kenner City Council finally indefinitely deferred their TNC ordinance.  

At Thursday’s Kenner City Council meeting, the rationale for deferring the ordinance was pending State legislation, including a proposed bill by newly-elected District 92 State Rep Joe Stagni, would soon supplant any City legislation.

Stagni is a former Kenner City Councilman and his House District includes a significant portion of Kenner.  

At the meeting, Lyin’ Ben said he spoke with Rep Stagni several times regarding TNCs and would continue lobbying Stagni, Rep Julie Stokes (whose District includes the Northern section of Kenner) and others to get a bill passed that would benefit Kenner.

There is also a proposed bill by Republican District 62 Rep Kenny Havard regarding TNCs. Havard’s district includes portions of East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes. I could take a cheap shot and ask, who knew that Uber was even available in East and West Feliciana, but that would be too easy.

But, if neither bill passes and isn’t signed into law, Kenner will be back where they are now – without any regulations regarding TNCs and, even if one of the two bills does pass, it will be months before the legislation will take effect which, again, leaves TNCs unregulated in Kenner.

That being said, while both bills impose a lower fee on TNCs than the Zahn/Sigur Money Grab, is either bill good for Kenner, public safety and consumers?

Not in their current forms.

Rep Havard’s bill, HB 527, while more comprehensive than Rep Stagni’s HB 672, has some very clear holes in it.

Havard’s bill imposes a 1% “local assessment fee” compared to Stagni’s $.25 per trip fee.

By his own admission, Rep Stagni’s bill is “not complete” and simply assesses a $.25 fee per TNC trip. Currently, the money collected under Stagni’s bill goes to the State Highway fund.

But, let’s talk about what neither bill includes.

Neither bill provides regulation regarding  "Dynamic" or “Surge pricing”. “Surge pricing” is when Uber/Lyft significantly increases their fees for very high demand usage like fleeing a natural disaster or even special events like JazzFest. Complaints about “surge pricing” (essentially price-gouging) have been rampant regarding Uber for years. In 2014, Austin (TX) residents complained about paying almost $300 for an 11-mile ride home during Halloween. The normal fare would have been less than $20.
Uber also faced numerous complaints regarding "Surge pricing" from residents fleeing Hurricane Sandy.
“Dynamic Pricing” indeed.

Neither bill requires Uber/Lyft drivers to obtain a chauffer’s license or Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). If you’re hauling people or making deliveries, even if part-time, you should be required to have more than a simple Driver’s License.

Neither bill mandates minimum insurance requirements for drivers other than normal state minimums. As Uber/Lyft drivers are independent contractors, they may or may not be covered in Louisiana by the TNC’s blanket insurance policy, and they clearly do not have commercial insurance coverage.

While Havard’s bill addresses service animals, neither bill adequately includes provisions for disabled riders or accessibility that remotely meets ADA guidelines. In 2014, a lawsuit was filed in California alleging Uber denied service to blind passengers. In the suit, it was alleged that an Uber driver put the service dog of a blind passenger in the trunk of his vehicle.

Neither bill mandates that TNC drivers or their vehicles be licensed in Louisiana.

Neither bill mandates that TNC drivers possess local occupational licenses. If TNC drivers are “Independent Contractors” as defined in Havard’s bill, a local occupational license should be required. An occupational license is required for Uber drivers in many cities including San Francisco, where Uber is headquartered.

Labeling TNC drivers as “Independent Contractors” has also been a legal bone of contention both among several States and the Federal government and many TNC drivers themselves.
The California Labor Commissioner's Office ruled that a former Uber driver was indeed an "employee". A Florida ruling granted a former Uber driver unemployment benefits.
Uber has vigorously fought the "Employee" designation which would make the company liable for collecting employment taxes and subject them to additional regulations.

Neither bill mandates that TNC vehicles are subjected to the same inspections as Taxis. In many cities, TNC vehicles are required to have annual comprehensive safety inspections, not simply a brake tag.

While Havard’s bill discusses a “Zero Tolerance Policy” regarding allegations of driving while intoxicated and imposes a driver suspension if there is an allegation, it does not preclude the TNC driver from simply joining a different TNC and continuing to operate.

Havard’s bill states that TNC drivers are required to complete a background check by the company but doesn’t specifically require a fingerprint background scan. Fingerprint scans are required for TNC drivers in New York City (the same as Taxi drivers) and Houston and are considered significantly more reliable than other background checks.  Uber shuttered operations in Austin, TX, after voters there defeated a proposal to allow Uber to continue using only the company-mandated background checks.  

Havard’s bill also curiously states that “a TNC or TNC driver is not a common carrier, contract carrier, or motor carrier, does not provide taxi or for-hire vehicle service, and is not required to register the TNC vehicle as a commercial motor vehicle or for-hire vehicle.”


If an Uber/Lyft driver is not a “vehicle for hire”, what are they?

If you are moving a passenger or goods from point A to point B, and you're not a delivery or taxi company, what does that make you? Essentially, a non-regulated Taxi.

If you think that I’m anti-Uber or pro-Taxi, you would be mistaken. In fact, I’m not even anti the Kenner City Council. We need the Kenner City Council and Lyin’ Ben the Mayor to continue to remind us what truly inept government is.

Since I’m feeling generous, I will throw the Kenner City Council a bone – a Taxi related issue that they can actually fix (if they have the intestinal fortitude, which is debatable).

Four years ago, when I was on the Kenner Code Advisory Committee, we spent hours debating multiple vehicles parked in front of houses and commercial vehicles (including Taxis) parked in residential areas.

There are examples all over Kenner (including several in District 2, Councilman Sigur’s District) of 3 or more Taxi cabs parked in front of a residence. This is truly a public safety issue and one that could be easily rectified.

Driving down a narrow street and seeing multiple Taxi cabs parked on the street is both an eyesore and a safety hazard (certainly much more of both than someone’s boat parked in their driveway).

Back then, after several meetings and hours of debate, it became apparent that the political appointees of then-Mayor Mike Yenni wouldn’t let the rest of the committee proceed regarding recommendations for establishing rules regarding multiple commercial vehicles operating out of a residence.

Within the committee, we speculated that Kenner Taxi drivers/owners might have stopped the process by going directly to Yenni. That was never able to be proven and I was asked to resign from the Committee when I qualified to run for Mayor  against Yenni (although I’ve yet to see the legal precedent for that request, I’m sure Keith Conley would whip up some legal nonsense to prove his point).

Commercial vehicles should not be parked overnight on the street in residential areas.
Again, a problem that is easily fixable.

Who said that  I wasn’t “solutions oriented”?  

Since Kenner clearly has been either unable or unwilling to adequately protect consumers and drivers, while providing a level, competitive playing field for TNCs and Taxi, Limo and Shuttle companies, let’s hope that either Rep Havard or Stagni amend their bills to include specific regulations that can benefit us and not just large companies like Uber and Lyft.

It would also help if any legislation were more than just a money grab.

We have enough of that in Louisiana (and Kenner) as it is.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Strollin’ Down Memory Lane Courtesy of Facebook and an Ex-Friend

Like many folks, I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. While I enjoy seeing my friend’s accomplishments, achievements and life events (sorry, what you had for lunch is not a “life event”), the anonymity of Facebook can make it a pretty dark place. When folks you’ve never met (and will never meet) or who barely know you, make judgements about your life and your character, something is wrong.

And, we’ve all done it.

Two things happened to me in the past few days on Facebook that made me stop and think.

First, courtesy of Facebook, I was unceremoniously reminded that, three years ago (against the advice of Doctors and many others) I ran for Mayor of Kenner. Obviously, Facebook was not aware that was not one of most positive “life events” in my now 55 years on this Earth.

We all know how that story ended, Mike Yenni beat me, but how many of us could have foreseen what the three years since that election would bring?

We now know that, even before the election, Mike Yenni was campaigning for his next job as Parish President.

We now know that, after his re-election as Mayor and before his ascension to Parish President, Yenni (a married father) was trying to hook up with teenage boys to add to his sexual conquests.

We now know that Yenni sexted at least one high school boy, bought him gifts, kissed him in a public restroom, suggested the two add another teen for gay threesome, and suggested that he and the teenage boy leave the state for a sexual rendezvous in Mississippi.

I wonder if Yenni’s Facebook page will remind him of those “life events”?

In Kenner, we now know that, after Yenni moved to Parish Government, we had a first-term, ethically-challenged Councilman appointed as “Interim Mayor”.

We now know that Kenner received Millions in the BP Oil Settlement that the Council promptly squandered on unnecessary buildings and projects loaded with contracts for their campaign contributors. This, on top of the $40 Million from Yenni’s debt sale for more unnecessary buildings and projects.   

We now know that, like Yenni, Lyin’ Ben Zahn quit on the job that he was elected to do (for a second time) and was elected Kenner Mayor leaving us with an Interim JP Councilman for almost a year.

I could say something snarky like, “See what happens when you don’t vote the right way?” but, that wouldn’t make me feel any better about myself or the state of the City of Kenner.

Being right doesn’t make things right.

The fact is, even if the voters in Kenner knew that Mike Yenni was a sexual predator trolling school events to hook up with young boys, he still would have beat me.

And, I’m ok with that.

But having Facebook throw my election defeat back in my face did make me think (for a second anyway) about what happened and what could have happened differently if circumstances had changed.

Which brings me to the second Facebook item that made me stop and think.

A person that I once considered a friend (yes, we ALL have those on Facebook) made a post that was critical of another person that I once considered a friend while simultaneously extolling the virtues a third person that I know is scumbag (for lack of a better term).

I hope you followed that because there will be a quiz at the end of this post. The “Winner” will get to read the pieces of paper contained in the infamous envelope with the word “TEXTS” written on it that George Peterson carries with him everywhere.

I can’t win since, while I don’t know if what’s inside the envelope is the actual texts that Mike Yenni sent to a high school boy, I have already seen many of the actual texts that Yenni sent and I don’t need to subject myself to seeing them again and I surely won't write about them. We all know what happened when JP Councilman Chris Roberts wrote about Yenni's texts to fellow JP Councilman Jennifer Van Vrancken. I don't need the "Investigative Unit" at Fox 8 following me around.  

But, back to the Facebook post.

Normally, I just roll through Facebook and don’t comment unless it’s to congratulate someone on a positive “life event” (again, lunch is not a “life event” imo).

As I read the post, I came upon a comment from a “friend” of my ex-friend. In the comment, he threw out words like “integrity” and “honesty” and tried to correlate them to Ben Zahn.

Yes, Lyin’ Ben Zahn.

Since I’ve known Ben Zahn for easily 10 years, I felt compelled to reply to this comment.

I know that I shouldn’t, but I did anyway.

You know how it is when you come to a fork in the road and you go left but after you’ve gone you realize that you should have gone right but you’ve gone so far that it’s too late to turn back.

That was me on Facebook.

Rather than just go on with my life, I questioned my ex-friend’s friend and whether he was on drugs. I mean, discussing “integrity” and “honesty” along with Ben Zahn in the same sentence is grounds for a sobriety test.

At the least, this person should not be operating heavy machinery.

As soon as I posted, I regretted saying it. After all, who am I to question someone else. Perhaps this person was on drugs or perhaps he was fooled by Lyin’ Ben.

Or, maybe Lyin’ Ben actually did something nice for this person or actually did his job and followed up on a complaint.

Or, maybe this person has a man-crush on Lyin’ Ben.

The point is, I don’t know and I should have stopped myself.

It wasn’t long before the haters came out.

Of course, aside from ex-friend, I didn’t know who any of these people were (and, they don’t know me). But that didn’t stop them from throwing their bricks at me.

That’s fine. After everything that I’ve done in my life I’m used to the “haters”.

But, when my ex-friend said that I was an “underachiever”, I had to shake my head (smh for the Facebook crowd).

You see, I’ve known this person for maybe 4 years. He was introduced to me by a mutual friend because he wanted my help.

That’s right – he wanted my “underachieving” help.

The fact that this person, who knows little about my life and what I’ve done felt the need to publicly call me an “underachiever” is truly ironic.

Now, I’m not going to go into his background or make comparisons. That’s not right. His life and his life choices are between him and God, as are mine.

But, his “underachiever” comment did get me thinking.

There are some things that I do well and some things that I’ve done in my life that were pretty damn good.

I like animals. I can cook pretty good. I write ok (I mean, you’re reading this aren’t you?).

I think I’m a good person. I've owned successful businesses and some that were not as successful as they should have been.
Have I always hit homeruns when I’ve been up at bat? Of course not.

But, “underachiever”?

Since this person doesn’t really know anything about my life, and he has only known me for a few years, I’m assuming that he was referring to my impact on Kenner.

Yes, I ran for office twice and lost. Since I wasn’t expected to win either time, my losing can’t be considered “underachieving”. In all honesty, considering the amount that I was overspent and the uphill battles I fought, I actually did much better than I ever imagined.

So, how exactly have I “underachieved”?

In 2011, I led a group of citizens and we beat back Mike Yenni’s plan to double property taxes. This saved Kenner property owners $12 Million a year, over $70 Million thus far. Despite Yenni, Zahn and others proclaiming that the City of Kenner would go down the tubes and criminals would rule Kenner if the taxes weren’t approved, neither happened and Kenner property owners have more money in their pockets. Since the tax wasn’t imposed on businesses, Kenner’s non-property owners also have more money to spend.

In 2013, I helped a predominantly West Bank group of citizens defeat the attempt to continue the Crescent City Connection toll for another 20 years. Another group of average citizens standing up to the politicians. The CCC toll took $20 Million annually from the folks who crossed the bridge and kept it out of the hands of politicians who took the money from here for projects across the state. Another $80 Million thus far in our pockets and not the politician’s pockets.  

Also in 2013, I sued the City of Kenner and Mike Yenni to stop him from taking on the largest debt in Kenner’s history without voter approval. While my lawsuit was dismissed, I still stood up for what I believed. We’re now 4 years into Yenni’s 2030 Plan. Aside from some public art (a tax deduction for Henry Shane) and a bike lane near Williams and I-10, have you seen any significant improvements to Kenner? Has there been an accounting of the 2030 Plan and the budget? Has there been an accounting of Federal, State and Regional grants that replaced 2030 Plan funding and where that money was reallocated?

Of course not. That was my primary issue with the 2030 Plan – there was never any transparency. We (the people) didn’t approve the projects or approve the money and we have no idea where the money went.

But, again, I stood up for what I thought was right despite the “haters” and the personal attacks.

In 2014, I helped another citizens group gain support for the passage of the Louisiana Clarity Act, a law that provides for transparency in the property insurance industry statewide and should lead to more educated consumers and lower property and flood insurance rates for everyone.

Again, more money in your pocket (although this time at the expense of the insurance industry).

Those are just 4 big examples. I’ve also been involved in lots of projects and issues that impact Kenner and Jefferson Parish.

I guess that if standing up for what I believe in despite the personal costs, trying to live with integrity and honoring God daily, make me an “underachiever”, I will gladly wear that badge and buy the matching t-shirt.

I can only hope that my ex-friend is as much of an “underachiever” as I am.