City Commission discusses a disparity study, electric scooters, and the Open Letter

This article covers the afternoon session of the December 5 Gainesville City Commission meeting.


Racial and Gender Disparity

Michelle Clark Jenkins from Griffin & Strong Consulting Group gave a presentation on “Equity and inclusion procurement.” This was requested by the Race and Equity Subcommittee because they want to gather data about inequities in how the city procures goods and services. Clark Jenkins gave details about what would be included in a study and told the commissioners that it would likely cost around $250k to $300k. She said that the “Friendship Seven” study used secondary data, but her company’s study would need primary data and would be focused on procurement. 

Mayor Poe thought the charter officers should discuss this and bring their recommendations back to the General Policy Committee so any spending could be incorporated into next year’s budget. Commissioner David Arreola said the Race and Equity Subcommittee had already decided that they needed a disparity study. Arreola said the procurement study would include recommendations for how to implement policies that address the disparities; “one of the things that our community is expressing frustration with is that [the Friendship Seven study] was an informational study only, and there were not prescriptions for the governing bodies and the institutions to go forward.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson said, “I don’t think, in general, people are comfortable spending money on studies in government, right? But they need to be done because it’s a path so that we do not get sued.” Poe chimed in, “Or if we get sued, we can defend ourselves.”

A motion to ask the charter officers to discuss this and come back with more information and also to continue the discussion at the December 12 General Policy Committee meeting passed unanimously.

Micromobility (Electric scooter rentals)

City staff presented a draft ordinance on micromobility devices, which are defined as “any motorized transportation device made available for private use by reservation through an online application, website, or software for point-to-point trips and which is not capable of traveling at a speed greater than 20 miles per hour on level ground.” The term can include motorized scooters and motorized bicycles. 

The ordinance says that any company wishing to deploy these devices in the city must get a permit; the permit is for one year, and no more than 3 companies will have permits at any time. Permits cost $8k for up to 200 devices and $16k for up to 400 devices. The companies will per per-ride regulatory fees of $0.15/ride to the city. The devices may be operated between 6:00 AM and 10:00 PM and will be disabled outside those hours. Devices must be limited to 15 mph. 

The companies must “ensure equitable deployment of micromobility units”: 10% of the devices must be placed in Zone A (see the map below), and the fleet must be rebalanced daily as necessary to meet this requirement. The determination of Zone A was based on census data on lack of vehicle ownership. The companies must also provide a way for people to rent the units without smartphones or bank accounts.

The draft ordinance originally included the requirement to pick up all the devices every night, but commissioners decided to remove that requirement because of the fuel that would be expended in picking up and replacing the devices every night. One of the concerns with leaving them out is that other cities have had incidents in which devices are “used as projectiles” or vandalized. 

Two vendors were at the meeting: Spin, a division of Ford, and Bird Scooters. Both said they had programs for low-income users; Bird’s program lets an individual pay $5/month for a specific number of trips under 30 minutes, and Spin’s program charges 50% of the unlocking and per-minute charges (normal rates are usually $1 to unlock and $0.18-$0.29/minute). 

Commissioner Gigi Simmons asked whether these programs attracted significant numbers of low-income and smartphone-free riders. “Have we seen the data to indicate that it’s working? That’s what I want to see, that’s what I want to know.”

The Spin representative replied “We’ve been doing a deep dive on some of these issues internally. I don’t know if I have numbers that I can give out publicly today, but I will talk to our policy people and see what we can share publicly. What I will tell you is that if you have the density and if you have the transportation nodes, and you have a gap, we’ve seen high rates of utilization in low and moderate income communities. Is it as high as on some of the college campuses? No, but it’s higher than you would have anticipated, based on deployments. I think what the industry is learning is that it’s not a good idea to just target one segment of the community for your product because there’s other segments of the community that will respond to that product robustly.”

Arreola moved that the motion be amended to specify that “The requirement [to place units in Zone A] may be increased to up to 20% or more at the director’s discretion based on utilization rates.”

Simmons asked the vendors, “What percentage of your users are in the low-income program?” The Spin representative said he didn’t have that information, but the number of people who qualified for the program was pretty low because they have to provide information to prove their income. The Bird representative also said he didn’t have that information but would get back to the city.

Simmons also thought that the ordinance should specify a minimum amount of marketing and outreach to lower-income neighborhoods (that requirement is now part of the permitting process). Poe said that putting that in the ordinance would make it too hard to adjust during the pilot program.

During public comment on the motion, Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell suggested getting data from other communities to help set the permitting policies. Kali Blount said Zone A has “terrible” bus service, so this would create a needed alternative for transportation. 

After public comment, Simmons said, “I just wanted everyone here to know that I’m all for mobility and I love dockless scooters, I don’t have a problem with it, but I’m very disappointed today that we have vendors here today that did not come here with information on the low-income users, they don’t know how many people are using their—taking advantage of the program, so I don’t have anything substantial, data, from these two vendors here to convince me that this is something that, as a community, as a whole, not just a certain population, but as a whole, that we should entertain. I have absolutely no data, I have absolutely nothing, when we talk about anything that should be affordable to the people that could benefit from this program, so I’m very disappointed. I’m very disappointed, and I just wanted my colleagues to know that.

The motion passed 6-1, with Simmons in dissent.

Open Letter to the Alachua County School Board

The commissioners next discussed whether to send a letter to the Alachua County School Board as a body, either by signing the existing Open Letter or by writing their own. Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos suggested a modification of the existing letter, in which he removed some language criticizing specific people. His version of the letter wasn’t in the online backup, and it wasn’t read out loud. 

Commissioner Harvey Ward presented an edited version: “Greetings. We write in support of the community members who want to initiate a dialogue, offer support, and request that meaningful participation be included in equity and school governance. We understand that the city needs to be a partner in addressing disparities in our community and are a willing partner. What can we do as a city to help address the disparities identified in Gainesville schools? We ask for a public conversation in which the district describes the efforts taken to date to comply with the state turnaround plan and promotes a conversation about community goals. We ask for meaningful participation of the public; we also ask how we can be a partner to help address these issues in our community; finally, we firmly believe that interventions for the schools that most need our attention and support for all schools is fundamentally an issue of equity. To reiterate, the City of Gainesville wishes to offer logistical and other support for these issues, as well as issues related to school reconstruction.”

Johnson said she would not support any letter other than the original Open Letter: “I’m not in support of the current conversation because I believe that this letter was crafted with a lot of thoughtfulness from members in our community and I’m in support of the letter as it is and if a motion comes up, then I’m not going to be able to support the motion because I think it’s great as it is.”

Arreola reminded the commission that they had previously said they would only send a letter if they agreed unanimously. He continued, “Now, this commission has already unanimously challenged this whole community to raise its standards for reading achievement across the board, so I think we need to take a step back and understand that what we have been asked to do is to support the community’s call for more effort, and whether that happens in a letter that we all support or whether that happens in the work that we put together with this partnership that we’ve asked the school board to, that’s where I think we’re headed.”

Poe agreed and said they might want to table the discussion until the end of the evening session, to give commissioners time to think about it.

During public comment, Carly Simon, the author of the Open Letter, said, “The community has found engaging the school board has been very challenging, especially when there’s topics that deserve more than three minutes of time, and that’s what we were asking for, is to have more discussion. We feel that the equity plan is not meeting the expectations that we were hoping—even after a year, we found that the achievement gap either stayed the same or increased, and those are concerns for us because time does matter, and the longer we wait to see if something happens, the longer we have more children who are going to fall into this situation. So we are asking in this letter to have a dialogue, that’s all we are wanting, is some shared leadership and discussion. We would like to make sure that we’re all able to contribute.”

The board then tabled the issue and took a break before the evening session.

Odds and Ends

During public comment, Jon DeCarmine, the Executive Director at Grace Marketplace, shared information about their 2019 Impact Report. He said they had moved 406 people out of homelessness this year, with 163 served by the Diversion Program and 161 moved out of GRACEland (the city and county shelter) into permanent housing. (Smaller programs accounted for the rest.) The Diversion Program is sponsored by Queen of Peace and could serve 100 more people a year if Grace had additional funding. Overall, 4,900 people were served. Grace will soon be the first pet-friendly low-barrier shelter in Florida. DeCarmine added that about 100 platforms have been constructed in partnership with Rebuilding Together of North Central Florida, and the Veterans Dorm is scheduled to open in March 2020. 

Also during public comment, Scott Hesch, who lives in Dignity Village, said he was concerned about the armed guards the city has contracted with to provide security. He said one of the guards had an AK-47 in his vehicle, and he felt that was unnecessary. “… just seemed a bit over the top that we would even have guards with weapons. The police department is still in charge, right? It just does not seem right.” Hesch went on to bring up a second issue: He said that on Monday, the director of Dignity Village stopped letting people bring vehicles in. He said that a handicapped man left the area on Monday and then couldn’t get back in when he returned and had to walk a long way to where he lived. Hesch said there was no notice that this policy change was coming. 

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