SafeClear Towing Program Challenged

Houston City Council is poised to make more changes to the city's SafeClear towing service after a judge challenged the legality of the program.

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Houston Mayor Bill White's SafeClear program enables the city to hold contracts with two truck companies and dispatch trucks to pick up vehicles on the city's freeways. But a federal judge ruled the city can't regulate towing fees unless the effort relates directly to safety and doesn't have an unfair economic impact on tow truck operators. Because the city holds contracts with large tow companies, some smaller companies say they can't compete and offer the same low-cost tows as their larger competitors. Suzanne Poole is the president of the Houston Professional Towing Association and says the city's contracts with tow companies are unfair.

Poole says the program should be open to any tow truck operator without the need for a contract. Right now, eleven companies hold one-year contracts with the city to be SafeClear operators. Ken Ulmer represents those companies and says allowing anyone and everyone to participate takes the city back where it was before, when half a dozen tow trucks rush to a scene and cause additional traffic problems.

City councilmembers will vote on several amendments to the program. Councilmember Shelley Sekula-Gibbs has an amendment that would effectively negate the one-year towing contracts, but has encountered resistance to that from other councilmembers. Sekula-Gibbs questioned Poole on the legality of the various amendments.

Mayor White contends SafeClear can maintain contracts with companies and still be in compliance with the ruling as long as the economic burden on the city is not excessive. Several changes to the program are expected to pass in council's regular meeting. It's anticipated that most of the council will support the mayor's proposals.

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