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Could city end up in court over proposed bylaw?

Helping Hands, other agencies seek exemption; Happy at Home owner says litigation could occur if city stays on current path
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The city could end up in court if it continues to pursue a bylaw that attempts to regulate the auxiliary service transportation sector (ASTC), warns Sheona Kloostra, owner of Happy at Home.

She said the city’s decision to include services like hers amid sweeping proposed changes to the taxi industry aimed at levelling the playing field and allowing Uber to service Orillia would violate human rights and could delay any decisions indefinitely.

“You can’t lump us all in together,” Kloostra told OrilliaMatters after a public meeting at city hall Tuesday night in which the city requested input and feedback into the draft bylaw. “We will hold this all up.”

She said she would be forced to pursue litigation if the city followed through with its proposed changes. Those changes would impose the same regulations on Happy at Home and other similar agencies that taxis face.

The only difference is ASTC vehicles would not be required to have meters or roof lights. In addition to the taxi requirements ($750 annual licence fee per vehicle, mandatory safety inspections every six months and criminal background and vulnerable sector screening etc.) every ASTC and driver could only provide “an auxiliary service” if it’s provided by pre-arrangement, reserved in advance by at least two hours. The service must be more than one hour in duration.

Kloostra said she city should stay out of this sector.

“I don’t believe for a minute that any client I have believes the city has any business regulating this,” she said, noting clients have the right to privacy and the right to choose their provider. “It’s not the city’s job to protect my clients – that’s my job and I take it seriously.”

Rob Soczka, chief executive officer of Helping Hands, also has grave concerns about the proposed changes and has asked the city to exempt agencies like his from the draft bylaw.

“In a nutshell, our biggest concern is the impact it would have on our business model,” said Soczka. “About 50% of our rides are provided by volunteers and some of those rides are actually provided in the volunteer’s personal vehicles. Some of the provisions within the proposed bylaw would impact that and might limit the number of volunteers that may volunteer their vehicles or even their time.”

He said the city’s goal of levelling the playing field is not applicable to Helping Hands.

“We are not in the business of competing over the wide spectrum of transportation providers we heard from (Tuesday night),” said Soczka, who noted Helping Hands is government funded, providing its users with heavily-subsidized rates.

“We focus on the more vulnerable population, low-income earners that can’t afford or can’t access those other traditional forms of transportation or even some of the newer forms,” he said, referencing Uber.

For example, he said Helping Hands clients pay $5 for an in-town trip. He said they can do that thanks to government funding, volunteer help and charitable donations.

“No other private entity is going to come close to the costing model we provide because we want to ensure everyone has equitable access to transportation,” he said.

He also said it doesn’t make sense for the city to regulate “something that is already being regulated provincially.” He said many of the bylaw’s provisions are already built in and there is a “robust screening process” for drivers.

“We’re concerned the conditions in the bylaw would actually work against the public interest because if we constrict in any way our capacity to provide those services … it would actually do more harm in the community than good. It would mean less service and more cost.”

Soczka said Helping Hands, which provides about 35,000 rides a year, is unique and should not be included in the bylaw.

“We reached out to our provincial association and they are not aware of any other jurisdiction, at this point, that has taken the same approach as the City of Orillia has in trying to define an (agency like ours) as part of an ATSC. No other municipality has done that.”

Brian Gibb, owner/operator of Going with Gibb, a local accompaniment service, believes his business should also be exempt.

"Clients and their family hire me for a service. They don’t hire the vehicle,” he said, noting he charges an hourly rate. “The bylaw requirement of a minimum of two hours … I feel this is discriminatory to residents of Orillia.”

He said the city is over-stepping its boundaries if it follows through with the bylaw.

“Residents have a right to privacy. I’m not really sure the city needs to know how long a person needs to use the service, where they’re going and who they are or, for that matter, how much they pay,” he said of the private agreement between client and company.

He said he was glad the city hosted a public forum that allowed for input.

“Any time you have a public forum like this it’s excellent,” said Gibb. “It’s a good idea and I give the committee credit for doing it.”

Tuesday night’s forum was moderated by Ward 1 councillor Ted Emond. He was joined by his Ward 1 colleague, Sarah Valiquette-Thompson, Shawn Crawford, the city’s manager of legislative services, city CAO Gayle Jackson and Jeff Rogers, a bylaw enforcement officer.

A report, based on input from the forum and formal submissions, will be compiled and will be presented for deliberation at the June 18 council committee meeting.




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