Ban of the Birds – The Libertarian Party of Athens Georgia’s Journey towards Preventing Over-Regulation in the Local Economy by April Brown

Bird scooters have been making a stir everywhere.

The Classic City of Athens Georgia, where I reside, is no exception. The Birds arrived in the Athens Georgia back in August and made quiet the buzz ever since. If you know Athens, then you can imagine that it’s the perfect college town to try out new and inexpensive innovations of traveling. But, like the Pokémon Go phenomenon, the excitement of the Bird scooters brought some challenges. Enthusiastic, yet careless users, weren’t following current motorized scooter regulations. A few were riding them on the sidewalks, didn’t wear helmets, parking them in the middle of sidewalks and were skirting around buses. But there were many people that were following regulations and were using the inexpensive dockless scooters to get to class and to their places of employment.

Recently, the county commission dubbed the scooters as a public nuisance and proceeded to set in motion a plan to regulate this budding industry and mode of transportation. According to the county commissioners, they set up a meeting with a Bird representative about adding new features to the scooters. The commissioners reported that they were not able to reach a consensus with Bird regarding their concerns and possible solutions. Shortly after this initial meeting, it was reported in the local newspapers, that the county commision Legislative Review Committee would vote to ban motorized dockless scooters.

This was very shocking news.

Where better to allow this new innovation of travel, than the congestive college town? A town where citizens and government officials are always complaining about the flaws in our current public transit system. It was time to take some citizen action, so I organized a few people to come down to city hall on December 4, 2018 for the county commission meeting to speak in favor of the scooters. When the meeting was open to public comment, a college student addressed the benefits of the bird scooters. She told of how they help her to get to class, due to UGA charging so much for parking, and how they get her safely to work in the evenings when she was all alone. She emphasized that renting the scooters was a much more affordable option than buying her own scooter or owning a car.

Then it was my turn to address the commission.

I introduced myself as the Chairwoman of the Libertarian party of Athens and an Executive Committee member of Libertarian Party of Georgia. A few of the commissioners knew who I was, because we have spoken about other areas we could work together on. Among those who know me were now commissioner, and soon to be Mayor, Kelly Girtz. I touched on similar points that the young woman that spoke before me had brought up. I also addressed Commissioner Jerry NeSmith directly. Commissioner Nesmith is the Chair of the Legislative Review Committee. He was quoted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution saying that the scooters were “prolific in an unregulated environment.“ As politely as I could, I reminded the commissioner that motorized scooters are regulated. We’ve had laws for years for privately owned scooters.

The issue isn’t the scooters, but the few individuals who aren’t following the rules and regulations. I used the example of when Pokémon Go came out, and while it is illegal to operating a phone while driving, that didn’t stop some people. After my allotted time was up, William Wright, Vice Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Athens spoke. Wright, who is also a nurse, works with one of the local homeless coalitions to provide health services for homeless persons in Athens. He pointed out that the county commissioners were willing to ban dockless scooters, for being in the middle of the sidewalk and being eyesores, yet it is not uncommon in downtown Athens to have to step over a homeless person’s legs, or encounter a blocked sidewalk because a homeless person’s shopping cart, stroller, belongings, etc., are in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking the walkway. A Bird Representative for Georgia spoke next and offered to work with the commissioners to find solutions to their concerns. After she sat down, there were many other citizens who spoke in favor of the scooters.

The time came for the commissioners to vote.

The commission was proposing a twelve month ban on the scooters. Several of the commissioners argued that because they were dockless, it’s near impossible to determine what individual parked it illegally and that it is costly to regulate and deal with the scooters. They all agreed that since the county has to deal with the enforcement with laws, and enforcement is expensive, that the county should get some compensation from Bird. Commissioner Melissa Link went a step further and said that the city should get a cut of the profits because the scooters are used on city streets. And it was pretty clear that Athens wasn’t getting its cut of this new innovative business. So, the commissioners and the mayor unanimously voted to ban the scooters for a twelve month moratorium. I left that meeting feeling a little defeated, yet determined.

The county commission made it seem like Bird wasn’t willing to work with them until the final hour. So, I reached out to several of the commissioners, including the newly elected, about setting up a solutions meeting so that the ban could possibly be lifted sooner.  Commissioner Jerry NeSmith was the only one to reply to my request. He informed me that they tried to have a discussion about this with Bird, but were not able to come to a consensus. I offered to get a group of citizens together to act as a mediator group between the city and companies like Bird and Lime. But the commissioner made it very clear he wasn’t interested in citizen mediation. Upon further investigation it was revealed that the police data used to sway the commission’s vote was not from local sources, but from websites and an opinion piece in the LA Times. This was very disconcerting information.

So what now?

Well, we’re still working. Though Commissioner NeSmith seems to be giving the impression he wants everything on his terms, I’m still hoping that others on the commission, and the newly elected mayor is willing to work with the citizens. We at the Libertarian party of Athens understand some of the frustration with Bird. In fact, this became a debate even amongst Libertarians. But, I still believe if we as citizens can work with both Bird and our local government, we can find common ground and viable solutions.

Finding common ground has been my goal since organizing the Libertarian party of Athens. I know by stamping my feet and calling elected officials statist and insulting them isn’t going to help bring the birds back or accomplish any other goal we have for Athens-Clarke County. William Wright and I are working on ideas to present to both Bird and the county. Athens claims to be a progressive metropolis in a sea of rural, but we can’t be all that progressive if we want to vault progress. Progress not only in politics but in innovations of the market. So, the work isn’t over. But, it never is.

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