Bogus innovation and false outrage

Uber, K.J. and the Kings unite—and a phony controversy persists in Oak Park

Can companies be creepy, vindictive douchebags? Apparently they can when they are Uber. In the last couple of weeks, there has been a flood of criticism against the company for abusing its customers’ privacy, for assaults on customers and for Uber executives threatening to “dig up dirt” on the personal lives of journalists who write critically about the company.

At least the Uber backlash seems to be helping to clear up some of the misunderstanding about what Uber actually is. It is a taxi service. It gives people rides in cars for money. Aside from tinkering with pricing and dispatch methods, Uber’s big “innovation” is to avoid being regulated like a taxi service.

Bites is not against deregulation or competition or “disruption” in the taxi industry. But let’s not pretend the rules are being applied equally. Uber gets to make money in the taxi market but doesn’t have to pay for the licensing fees, high levels of insurance and various other regulatory expenses that are the cost of doing business for traditional cab companies. Some call that disruption. Some call it an unfair business practice.

Being a taxi company that avoids being regulated like a taxi company is an increasingly difficult trick to pull off. It helps that Uber has bros in high places.

Amid Uber’s bad press last week was a piece in the November issue of The Progressive magazine, looking into the company’s aggressive influence-peddling among U.S. mayors. Sacramento’s own mayor, Kevin Johnson, is featured prominently in writer Rebecca Kemble’s piece.

Kemble writes that at the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in Dallas last June, Madison, Wis., Mayor Paul Soglin proposed a resolution acknowledging that cities have the right to regulate taxi and rideshare companies “to protect the public and provide equitable, competitive service.”

Kemble reports the resolution was unanimously adopted in committee, but Johnson, the current president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, called for a vote to indefinitely postpone Soglin’s resolution.

“The vote passed and Soglin’s resolution effectively died,” Kemble reported, then adding, “After the conference, Mayor Johnson filed a reporting form with the city of Sacramento revealing that Uber had donated $50,000 to Johnson’s newly formed nonprofit organization, the African American Mayors Association.”

Regular Bites readers know Uber’s donations to Johnson’s nonprofits also coincided with his penning a pro-Uber editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle this summer. Most of the column is comprised of the words “Cities 3.0” and “next economy,” repeated over and over again and strung together with a few transition sentences. Then there’s a small paragraph near the end condemning new insurance requirements for Uber.

The big donation also came right before Uber was named the official scab-cab of the Sacramento Kings.

The Progressive piece just shines a bit more light on how Uber is “disrupting” the old ways of bribing politicians, including our own world-class mayor. Call it Quid Pro Quo 3.0.

The phoniest Sacramento political controversy ever continues to roll on its phony way. The city council is now fast-tracking an ordinance to redo part of the city’s 2011 redistricting plan so that council member Jay Schenirer can have the UC Davis Med Center in his district. Schenirer and his ally Johnson are pushing to make sure they get the change done while there is no one on the city council to represent District 6, which now includes the Med Center. The D6 seat will be vacant for a few months after Kevin McCarty leaves for the state Assembly.

The 2011 decision to draw the current city council boundaries—grouping the Med Center with the Elmhurst and Tahoe Park neighborhoods most affected by hospital traffic—has been described as a “travesty” and a “wound” to Oak Park.

Which is weird, since Oak Park leaders had no idea they were outraged until Schenirer and Mayor Johnson told them.

The fact is that at the time, three out of the four maps recommended by the Sacramento Redistricting Citizens Advisory Committee—whose advice the council supposedly ignored, Johnson and Schenirer now complain—took UC Davis Med Center out of Schenirer’s district.

In fact, Schenirer’s own appointee to the citizens redistricting committee—a guy named Steve Hansen, later elected to city council—submitted a map putting Oak Park and the Med Center in different districts.

Not only that, but the Oak Park Neighbor-hood Association also submitted its own redistricting map recommending that the Med Center and Oak Park be put in different council districts—in the exact same manner that the OPNA would, with considerable prompting from Schenirer and Johnson, later rail against.

So all the fake outrage is not fooling anyone.

Well, OK, it’s fooling a lot of people, including the all-too-credulous Sacramento Bee editorial board. But it’s still bullshit.