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City regulation could drive Uber to stay away from Orillia

Council committee paves way for Uber, but new bylaw requires drivers to go through vulnerable sector check, something Uber officials say is too much

Orillia is opening the door to ride-sharing services such as Uber, but Uber may just slam that door shut on local customers.

At a lengthy city council committee meeting Monday afternoon at City Hall, councillors gave the green light to a new bylaw that would allow Uber to operate in the city – a victory for those who have long been clamouring for the service. (The decision has to be ratified Thursday night)

However, one of the hotly-debated caveats of the proposed new legislation, that was ultimately endorsed by councillors, was a stipulation that Uber drivers, in addition to other requirements, must be subject to a vulnerable sector check before being allowed to operate in Orillia.

And that, apparently, is not acceptable to Uber. Company officials recently told city staff it would not come to Orillia if that restriction was in place.

“Uber has indicated they may carve out Orillia from their ap if, in fact, the municipality does require the vulnerable sector check,” Shawn Crawford, the city’s manager of legislative services, revealed to councillors.

He said only one municipality in Ontario forces Uber drivers to go through a vulnerable sector check. “Ottawa is the only municipality in Ontario that I know of requiring” that, he said.

Despite that, he said city staff felt it was important to “set a high standard” and noted that, currently, prospective taxi drivers in Orillia must be subject to a vulnerable sector check. He said it was important to have a level playing field.

“From staff’s perspective, if we look at the core of licensing, of why we’re in this business, we are in this business for public safety,” said Crawford. “So, if we’re in this business for public safety and we’re going to regulate drivers, whether it be a ride-sharing service or taxi industry, than we should be requiring the vulnerable sector check.”

Crawford said Uber regulations require drivers to pass a criminal background check and have a clean driver’s abstract to become a driver.

“The vulnerable sector check goes a lot further than the standard criminal record check,” Crawford explained. “It identifies any pardoned sexually-related offences (and) it also will identify findings of not criminally responsible due to mental disorder, so those are a couple of things the vulnerable sector check provides that a standard criminal reference check doesn’t.”

Coun. Mason Ainsworth and Coun. Sarah Valiquette-Thompson proposed that council nix the vulnerable sector check. Both stressed that citizens have been demanding the service and suggested Uber’s standards are high enough.

“I support Orillia having access to Uber,” said Ainsworth, citing lengthy wait times for cabs late at night and noting “only one of 444 municipalities in Ontario say this is needed.”

He said if riders are concerned and feel unsafe using Uber, they have other options.

“I support the market and the market will dictate it,” he said. “If people don’t want to take Uber for that reason, (they) can choose to use other services.”

Valiquette-Thompson agreed, saying the fact that just one municipality requires a vulnerable sector check “speaks volumes.” She said she supports citizens having more options. “I don’t want to see us close the door on this potential opportunity with Uber.”

However, the majority of council did not agree and did not support removing the vulnerable sector screening.

Coun. Ted Emond said he consulted with his wife, a “children’s lawyer”, about the issue.

“She expressed a very strong opinion that any organization that has responsibility for transporting vulnerable (people) should, in fact, have that check done,” Emond said.

Coun. Pat Hehn concurred, saying she “totally supports” the screening as a “vital” component of the regulation. She said Uber was using “scare tactics” to influence their decision.

“Maybe if (Uber) wants our business … we can say: You have a choice. If you want to be in Orillia, these are our rules,” said Hehn.

Emond cautioned that many don’t have options and don’t have family to call during times of need.

“I’m not willing, if we’re going to regulate this industry, to put those people at risk like some of my colleagues are,” he said. “I don’t feel that is appropriate. If we’re not going to apply the rule fairly … let’s not regulate anything. Let’s make it a free-for-all out there.”

He said “the reason we started down this path was to ensure that those who are vulnerable in the community are, in fact, provided with safe and secure transportation.”

In addition to paving the way for Uber, the new bylaw also regulates other transportation services.

However, after public consultation and back-and-forth dialogue with local groups, the new bylaw will exempt from regulation drivers at Helping Hands, Canadian Cancer Society, stretcher services, designated driver services and “auxiliary service transportation companies” such as Going with Gibb.

Those agencies had lobbied to be exempt and members from several of the groups expressed gratitude that the city listened.

This decision and all decisions made at Monday’s council committee meeting must be ratified at the next regular meeting of council, to be held Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the Orillia City Centre.