Pendleton taxi company once opposed to Uber scoops up rivals’ business name

Becky Ramirez, left, Alicia Reynen, and Jesse Reynen stand in front of one of the cars used by Let’er Uber, an informal group of Uber drivers who work in Pendleton. The trio was surprised to learn that the owners of a competing taxi company had registered the group’s name with the state.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

The owners of Pendleton’s only taxi service could not stop the city from allowing ride-hailing services like Uber to begin operating. But they did claim a business name that was first used by one of their new competitors.

Matthew and Rod Johlke, the owners of Elite Taxi, registered Let’er Uber LLC on Aug. 8 with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. The father and son team’s new limited liability company shares a name with an upstart group of ride-hailing drivers who had hoped technologies like Uber would increase transportation options in the area.

Whatever the intent, the creation of Let’er Uber LLC is the latest development in the contentious process of bringing ride-hailing services to Pendleton.

The move has confused members of Let’er Uber and the Johlkes haven’t publicly revealed the reason behind their new company. The owners did not return a message left at their Pendleton office.

All of this is taking place just before the Pendleton Round-Up, the region’s biggest tourism event of the year. In mid-September, thousands of tourists from around the world will arrive in Pendleton for the festivities, and many of them are going to need rides around town.

In the spring, a group of Pendleton drivers led by couple Alicia and Jesse Reynen lobbied the city to change its taxi code to allow Uber. Companies like Uber didn’t meet the city’s requirements for a taxi cab service, but the group of area residents argued it would expand Pendleton’s options and choices for transportation.

The request drew swift opposition from the Johlkes, who said they needed to maintain their status as the only taxi business offering cash fare rides to survive. The Pendleton city government also had a vested interest in keeping Elite Taxi alive.

Pendleton City Councilor Dale Primmer said that Elite holds contracts with the city to operate its public transportation services.

“They provide the drivers for the buses, they do the dial-a-ride, they do the medical non-emergency transport,” he said. “The fear for people was that if you undermine the fare side of it, would it undermine the sustainability and thus lose some essential services for those who are most vulnerable and most dependent upon those services?”

In late April, Primmer and the rest of the City Council agreed to compromise: Uber drivers would get a five-month trial period to prove they could operate without driving Elite out of business.

The Reynens founded Let’er Uber following the council’s decision, and Becky Ramirez joined shortly thereafter. Ramirez works as a tour guide and gift shop worker as her day job, but drives for Uber as a “side hustle.”

Ramirez said Let’er Uber started as an informal group to coordinate schedules and promote their services. The group has a core membership of fewer than 20 drivers.

Unlike taxi drivers who work for a company, all Uber drivers are independent contractors that use the Uber app to help book rides and process fares. While Uber has fought efforts to classify drivers as employees, Ramirez said the informal group Let’er Uber didn’t draw attention from the San Francisco-based company because it was just a group of locals looking to help each other.

Ramirez said her first few months working for Uber have been good. She’ll occasionally hear complaints about the quality of Elite’s services from her customers, but she said she doesn’t engage and tries to focus on her own job.

That’s why Elite’s move mystified the members of Let’er Uber.

“I’m not necessarily shocked that they did this,” she said. “I just don’t understand why you would do that. What is the point of buying that? What are your plans with it? It just doesn’t seem like a good thing. It seems like whatever it is, it’s going to be in malice.”

A small white building is surrounded by a gravel lot where buses and taxi cabs are parked.

Elite Taxi headquarters in Pendleton.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Regulations unknown

The city of Pendleton appears to be staying out of the conflict for now.

Linda Carter, who oversees Pendleton’s transportation programs as the city’s finance director, said about 25 people have obtained ride-hail licenses since the city opened up the process in late April.

Carter heard the complaint from Let’er Uber about the Johlkes’ limited liability company, but she thought it was a conflict best resolved privately between the drivers and Elite.

Primmer said he’s heard nothing but good things since the council approved the ride-hailing trial period. On a recent trip to Bend, he spoke with an Uber driver who was interested in working during the Pendleton Round-Up for the extra fares.

He said the situation between Let’er Uber and Elite reminded him of the dotcom rush in the 1990s when companies bought up domain names based on their perceived future value. But he didn’t know much about the situation and hadn’t thought about it in relation to his work on the council.

“Regardless of what the name is, I think when you still go to your Uber app and you punch the button it’s going to tie into whoever’s doing it,” he said.

Ramirez said Uber has stayed mostly at arm’s length during Pendleton’s policy-making process.

Hermiston is finding itself in the same boat. On the same day the Johlkes registered Let’er Uber LLC, assistant city manager Mark Morgan told the Hermiston City Council that Uber didn’t seem interested in getting involved in the local debate over ride-hailing.

“Uber’s not proven interested in engaging in any kind of change to their algorithms or anything like that based on any kind of code or ordinance,” he said. “It seems they basically ignore us until the people who want to have Uber demand it.”

Morgan said a “taxi code scofflaw” was driving for Uber in Hermiston despite not meeting the city’s taxi code, and the City Council will hear more on the issue soon.

Pendleton’s trial with services like Uber is set to end after the Round-Up.

The massive event also marks the unofficial end to Pendleton’s tourism season, drying up a potential well of customers for ride-hails and taxis alike.

Despite the upcoming wane in customer traffic, Ramirez said she thinks Let’er Uber has enough local customers to keep operating beyond the trial’s end.

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