Pendleton’s taxi company, once opposed to Uber, takes over the trading name of its rivals

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 were 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 couldn’t stop the city from allowing ride-sharing services like Uber to start operating. But they claimed a trade name that was used for the first time by one of their new competitors.

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

Whatever the intention, the creation of Let’er Uber LLC is the latest development in the controversial process of bringing ride-sharing services to Pendleton.

The move confused Let’er Uber members, and the Johlkes haven’t publicly disclosed the reason for their new venture. The owners did not return a message left at their office in Pendleton.

This all takes place just before the Pendleton Round-Up, the region’s biggest tourist event of the year. In mid-September, thousands of tourists from all over the world will arrive in Pendleton for the festivities, and many will need to travel to town.

In the spring, a group of Pendleton pilots led by the couple Alicia and Jesse Reynen pressured the city change his taxi code to allow Uber. Companies like Uber did not meet the city’s requirements for taxi service, but the area residents’ group argued that it would expand Pendleton’s transportation options and choices.

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

Pendleton Councilman Dale Primmer said Elite has contracts with the city to operate its transit services.

“They provide the bus drivers, they do the remote commuting, they do the non-emergency medical transport,” he said. “People’s fear was that if you compromise on the tariff side, would that compromise sustainability and thereby lose some essential services for those who are most vulnerable and most dependent on those services?”

In late April, Primmer and the rest of the city council agreed to a compromise: Uber drivers would be given a five-month trial period to prove they could operate without bankrupting Elite.

The Reynens founded Let’er Uber following the board’s decision, and Becky Ramirez joined them soon after. Ramirez works as a tour guide and gift shop worker as part of her day job, but drives for Uber as a “side hustler.”

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

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

Ramirez said his first few months working for Uber were good. She will occasionally hear complaints about the quality of Elite’s services from her clients, but she said she was non-committal and tried to focus on her own work.

That’s why Elite’s decision mystified Let’er Uber members.

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

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

Elite Taxi head office in Pendleton.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Rules unknown

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

Linda Carter, who oversees Pendleton’s transportation programs as the city’s chief financial officer, said about 25 people have obtained rideshare licenses since the city opened the process in late April.

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

Primmer said he’s heard nothing but good things since council approved the carpool trial period. On a recent trip to Bend, he spoke with an Uber driver who wanted to work 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 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.

“Whatever the name, I think when you always go to your Uber app and press the button, it’s going to be tied to whoever is doing it,” he said.

Ramirez said Uber mostly stayed aloof during Pendleton’s policy-making process.

Hermiston finds himself in the same boat. On the same day the Johlkes registered Let’er Uber LLC, Deputy City Manager Mark Morgan told Hermiston City Council that Uber seemed uninterested in getting involved in the local ride-sharing debate. .

“Uber has not shown any interest in engaging in any type of change to its algorithms or anything like that based on any type of code or order,” he said. “It seems like they’re basically ignoring us until the people who want to have Uber demand it.”

Morgan said a “taxi code fraudster” was driving for Uber in Hermiston despite not following the city’s taxi code, and the city council will hear more about the matter soon.

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

The massive event also marks the unofficial end of Pendleton’s tourist season, drying up a potential well of customers for cabs and cabs.

Despite the upcoming drop in customer traffic, Ramirez said she believes Let’er Uber has enough local customers to continue operating beyond the end of the trial.

Lance B. Holton