The Pendleton taxi company once opposed Uber taking the 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 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-hailing services like Uber to start operating. But they claimed a trade 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 August 8 with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. The father-son team’s new limited liability company shares a name with a group of up-and-coming drivers who hoped that 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 transportation services to Pendleton.

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

All of this takes place right before the Pendleton Round-Up, the region’s biggest tourism event of the year. By mid-September, thousands of tourists from all over the world will be arriving in Pendleton for the festivities, and many of them will be in need of 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 service, but the area residents’ group argued it would expand Pendleton’s transportation choices and options.

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

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

“They provide the bus drivers, they do the dial-a-ride, they do the non-emergency medical transport,” he said. “People’s fear was that if you undermined the tariff side of it, would you undermine the sustainability and therefore 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 have a five-month trial period to prove they could operate without putting Elite out of business.

The Reynens founded Let’er Uber after the board’s decision, and Becky Ramírez joined soon after. Ramirez works as a tour guide and gift shop worker as a 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 its 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 struggled to classify drivers as employees, Ramirez said the informal group Let’er Uber didn’t catch the attention of the San Francisco-based company because it was just a group of locals looking to help -each other

Ramirez said his first few months working at Uber have been good. He’ll occasionally hear complaints about the quality of Elite’s services from his customers, but he said he doesn’t compromise and tries to focus on his own work.

That’s why Elite’s move baffled Let’er Uber members.

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

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

Elite Taxi headquarters in Pendleton.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Unknown regulations

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

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

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

Primmer said he has heard nothing but good things since the council approved the transportation trial period. On a recent trip to Bend, he spoke with an Uber driver who was interested in working during the Pendleton Round-Up to get 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 at the council.

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

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

Hermiston is 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 transportation debate .

“It has not been shown that Uber is interested in making any kind of changes to their algorithms or anything like that based on any kind of code or ordinance,” he said. “They seem to basically ignore us until the people who want Uber demand it.”

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

Pendleton’s trial with services like Uber will end after the Round-Up.

The massive event also marks the unofficial end of Pendleton’s tourism season, drying up a potential well of customers for both rides and taxis.

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

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