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Rules of the road: Bike rental companies soon will need permits to run in Denton

The Denton City Council laid down new ground rules for bike-rental companies doing business in the city and jotted down a few more rules for themselves during ethics talks Tuesday afternoon. 

The council's work session began at noon and took about 90 minutes on each topic. The ethics talk was the council's third major discussion with Alan Bojorquez, a municipal ethics expert hired to help draft the city's first ethics ordinance. The long-awaited discussion on bike rentals was triggered by complaints that followed the first "dockless" rental bikes set up in Denton last summer. 

Such rental companies allow riders to find and unlock a bicycle with an app on a smartphone, then park and leave the bike at their destination for another user. They are different from docked bikes, which require users to rent and return bikes at fixed locations. 

Bike rentals

Soon after rental bikes arrived in Denton, people began complaining about bikes being left in the street, blocking sidewalks or on private property. 

"The biggest complaint I get is they are being left in places and not repositioned in a more central location," said council member John Ryan.

City Council members agreed with a recommendation from the city staff that bike rental companies get a city permit before setting up shop in Denton. The rules are being proposed after one company, VBikes, began doing business in Denton last June. Another company, Spin, has announced it will place rental bikes on the University of North Texas and Texas Woman's University campuses next month. 

Denton didn't have any rules for the bike rental companies before they arrived. But city leaders said they didn't want to go as far as some cities, such as Highland Park, and ban them, either. 

"We were on the verge [several years ago] of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for docked bikes," council member Dalton Gregory said. "If we can solve the problem of them [rental bikes] being an obstruction, then we will have gotten something valuable." 

Although the rules aren't official yet, once adopted, they will be considered a pilot program. The City Council expects to revisit the rules in three to six months, Mayor Chris Watts said. 

He preferred the city issue a request for proposals to be the city's dockless bike vendor to best fit the community's needs, he said. 

"We need to get this right," Watts said. "We want to encourage mobility and make sure the rest of the community is not endangered or inconvenienced by [rental bikes]." 

The cost of a permit likely will depend on how many bikes the company wants to place in Denton. 

Conditions of the permit likely would include agreements to keep the bikes in virtual corrals on public property, to share data and to do "geo-fencing." 

Geo-fencing is a shorthand description for the company's capability to force a rider to park the bike in an approved place through the smartphone app. Riders would not be able to lock the bike, and thus end the rental charges, until the bike is appropriately parked. 

Mark Nelson, the city's transportation director, said Denton expects to be able to use data the companies collect on ridership to help its own decision-making. 

"We can use the information to better build out our bike infrastructure," Nelson said. 

Companies can lose their permit if they take too long repositioning bikes or responding to complaints. They also can lose their permit if the city has to impound too many bikes in a certain period of time.

Although no timeline was announced, the city staff could bring the final permitting policy back for a council vote as early as next Tuesday. 

Ethics update

Council members decided after a few minutes what would be considered an abuse of information, resources or position under the city's new ethics rules. But they took much longer to decide failing to report an ethics violation would, in and of itself, be an ethics violation. 

Under the proposed rules, elected and appointed officials could face an ethics complaint if they act on privileged information in a way that personally benefits them. They must also take care when using city resources to make sure they are deployed as part of normal duties. Bojorquez cautioned those rules would include city software and similar tools, along with the more traditional prohibition against the inappropriate use of staff time, offices and city equipment. 

Elected and appointed officials would be expected to follow the same anti-harassment policies that govern the city staff. 

Several council members said they were reluctant to consider making a "duty to report" part of the ethics rules, given how difficult it can be to enforce. 

City Manager Todd Hileman agreed it would be difficult to prove someone knew of an ethics violation and didn't report it. 

"But it states your values; it's a powerful policy statement," Hileman said. 

Bojorquez said the duty to report follows one of the most famous code of ethics, that of a cadet at West Point Academy: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do."

He agreed it could be difficult to enforce, but it's important to remember people often have their own ethics code. 

In other words, some people's personal ethics code guides when they tattle on others. 

"If your own code doesn't tell you to report, the city says you do and makes it easy for you to know the route," Bojorquez said. 

The City Council also agreed to follow state law for financial disclosures, but to provide for civil penalties for officials who don't follow it. 

David Zoltner, a Denton veterinarian who has advocated for ethics reforms for many years, urged the council to make sure a public hearing on the final draft would be scheduled for an evening meeting or a Saturday to make it easy for the public to attend. 

"And an announcement in mailboxes in a 'slick,' like the other items the city announces," Zoltner said. "This is that important." 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

In Other Action 

During its regular meeting Tuesday, the Denton City Council also:

  • Approved the Denton Renewable Resource Plan, which is expected to power the city with 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.

  • Hired Freese and Nichols to design landscape improvements along Mayhill Road for $107,900.

  • Agreed to permanently close McCormick Street from Underwood Street to Avenue A for the reconstruction of Fire Station No. 3

  • Approved a right-of-way agreement with Oncor at the Arco Substation for $49,630

  • Authorized an interlocal agreement with Denton County for fire protection and ambulance services and the payment of annual fees to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Ray Roberts and Lewisville Lake operations

  • Agreed to the purchase of a 544K Wheel Loader for $152,969 from RDO Equipment and four Frazer Type I ambulances for $691,554 from Mac Haik Dodge Chrysler Jeep.

  • Awarded $5,080 of in-kind services to the 33rd annual Texas Storytelling Festival; a $650 grant to Denton County Friends of the Family for “An Evening of Raised Awareness with Dr. Yamma Brown,” and $40,000 to the Kiwanis Club for the annual Fourth of July fireworks show.

  • Awarded a contract for certain software upgrades to Grant Thornton LLP for $185,000; a three-year supply contract for utility polymer insulators from Wesco Distribution for $821,280, and three-year supply contracts to the lowest bidders for electric meters and related equipment for $4.2 million.

  • Amended the city’s sign ordinance to allow youth sports groups to sell sponsorships that include posting a sponsor’s sign on city ball fields.  

  • Approved a change order to the city’s contract with Ragle Inc. to a new maximum of $12.4 million in widening South Bonnie Brae Street and avoid relocating two natural gas pipelines. 

    FEATURED PHOTO: A VBike is parked near Fulton and Emery streets in this file photo. DRC/Jeff Woo