A Pendleton taxi company once opposed Uber over a rival’s trade name scoop

Becky Ramirez, left, Alicia Rennen and Jesse Rennen stand in front of a car used by Let’er Uber, an informal group of Uber drivers working in Pendleton. The trio were shocked 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 couldn’t stop the city from allowing ride-hailing services like Uber to operate. But they claimed a trade name that was used by one of their new competitors.

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

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 left Uber members confused, and Zolks has not publicly disclosed the reason for his new company. The owners did not return a message left at their Pendleton office.

All of this is happening right before the Pendleton Round-Up, the area’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 will need a ride around town.

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

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

Pendleton City Councilor Dale Primer said Elite has a contract with the city to operate its public transportation services.

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

In late April, Primer and the rest of the City Council agreed to a deal: Uber drivers would get a five-month trial period to prove they could work without putting Elite out of business.

Rennes founded Let’er Uber after the council’s decision, and Becky Ramirez joined shortly after. Ramirez works as a tour guide and gift shop clerk as her day jobs, 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 less than 20 drivers.

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

Ramirez said her first few months working for Uber were great. She sometimes hears complaints from her clients about the quality of Elite’s services, but she said she doesn’t get involved and tries to focus on her own work.

That’s why Elite’s moves mystified the members of Letter Uber.

“I’m not surprised they did it,” she said. “Why you did that, I don’t understand. What’s the point of buying it? What’s your plan for it? It just doesn’t seem like a good thing. Either way, it seems to be done out of malice.”

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

Elite Taxi headquarters in Pendleton.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Rules unknown

The city of Pendleton appears to be out of contention for now.

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

Carter heard complaints from Let’er Uber about Johlkes’ limited liability company, but he thought it was a privately settled dispute between the driver and Elite.

Primer 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 willing to work during the Pendleton Round-Up for extra fare.

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

“Whatever the name is, I think when you still go into your Uber app and you punch the button it connects to whoever did it,” he said.

Ramirez said Uber is mostly at arm’s length in Pendleton’s policy-making process.

Hermiston finds itself in the same boat. On the same day Johlkes registered Let’er Uber LLC, Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan told the Hermiston City Council that Uber doesn’t seem interested in getting involved in the local debate about ride-hailing.

“Uber has not shown any interest in making any kind of changes to its algorithm based on any kind of code or ordinance or anything like that,” he said. “They seem to ignore us until people who want Uber demand it.”

Despite Morgan not completing the city’s taxi code, a “taxi code scandal” over Uber in Hermiston was underway, and the City Council will soon hold further hearings on the matter.

Pendleton’s testing with services like Uber is set to end after round-up.

The big event also marks the unofficial end of Pendleton’s tourism season, drying up the potential well of customers for ride-hailing and taxis.

Despite the ensuing drop in customer traffic, Ramirez said she thinks Let’er Uber has enough local customers to operate beyond the end of the trial.

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