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Lyft supporters gather at a City Hall rally in February.
Lyft supporters gather at a City Hall rally in February.

The fate of app-based transportation companies like UberX, Lyft and Sidecar may soon be decided by the people of Seattle.

A coalition group that is collecting petition signatures to suspend a newly-passed ordinance regulating those companies tells GeekWire that it expects to easily surpass the number of signatures required for a city-wide vote.

Photo by Frank Catalano.
A ride-sharing coalition group has hired people to stand outside of grocery stores in Seattle and collect petition signatures. Photo by Frank Catalano.

“We’re very pleased with how the signature effort is going,” said Brad Harwood, spokesperson for the coalition. “We believe voters are eager to put this issue to a vote.”

But there is a potential bump in the road.

The City of Seattle has a referendum process in place for citizens that want to petition an ordinance. If the coalition, named “Keep Seattle’s Ride Options,” can get at least 16,510 valid signatures of registered Seattle voters — eight percent of the total number of votes cast for mayor in the last mayoral election (206,377) — the ordinance will be put on hold and then voted on by Seattle residents.

However, it’s unclear as to whether or not this particular ordinance, which caps the number of vehicles each company can have on the road to 150, is a legislative or administrative ordinance. As detailed here, it’s an important distinction: Washington does not allow people to petition ordinances that are administrative in nature.

Here’s how the state’s Municipal Research and Services Center describes the difference:

First, actions relating to subjects of a permanent and general character are usually regarded as legislative matters, and actions taken on subjects of a temporary and special character are usually regarded as administrative matters. Second, the power to be exercised is legislative in nature if it prescribes a new policy or plan, whereas it is administrative in its nature if it merely pursues a plan already adopted by the legislative body or some power superior to it.

We contacted the City of Seattle for clarification, but a spokesperson told us that “any matters that may be the subject of litigation aren’t ones on which staff can comment.”

The coalition group believes that the ordinance is a legislative matter.

uberx“Ordinance 124441 creates a number of policies designed to regulate mobile app ride services,” Harwood said. “The ordinance is a legislative action and therefore subject to the citizens’ referendum process.”

If the City deems the petition legitimate and the coalition group collects enough signatures, any laws relating to the ordinance would be suspended — that includes the 150-cap, which UberX and Lyft have complained about.

From there, City Council must pass legislation authorizing King County Elections to place the qualifying referendum measure matter on the ballot, either at the next regularly-scheduled election, or at an earlier special election. Once it qualifies for the ballot, the law won’t take effect until after the election, when voters will either approve or reject the ordinance.

Signatures can be gathered once the Mayor has approved the ordinance — which happened on March 19 — and must be submitted before an ordinance goes into effect, which is generally 30 days after approval the Mayor. So, the coalition has until April 18 to collect and submit enough signatures.

UberX supporters wave posters during last week's City Council meeting.
UberX supporters wave posters during last month’s City Council meeting.

In addition to the 150-cap on active vehicles, the ordinance contains a bevy of other rules and regulations for these transportation companies, which allow everyday drivers to shuttle passengers around town and were previously operating in Seattle illegally prior to the legislation passed by City Council in March. There are insurance, safety and licensing requirements that would be put on hold, among other rules, if this coalition can garner enough support.

People have voiced strong opinions on this issue, mainly from two sides: One group supports the companies and says the City Council is limiting innovation with the 150-cap; others say that the startups need to follow the law and stop avoiding regulation and taxation.

Both UberX and Lyft voiced disdain for the City Council’s decision and vowed to fight Seattle’s leaders for their right to operate with a limit in the city. Some taxi drivers, meanwhile, have sued Uber for engaging in deceptive business practices and say they want a “level-playing field.”

See all of our coverage on this issue here.

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