Uber excitement wanes as Mobile council members challenge legality of its operations

Sandy Stimpson Uber Announcement.jpg

Not long after it became widely-known the ride-hailing service Uber was looking for local drivers, city officials in Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office sensed an opportunity. It was decided in April that they would try and bring the company’s business to Mobile.

After all, making government more “business friendly” is one of Stimpson’s stated goals and Uber, bedeviled by rocky rollouts in the state, would make one fine gem should all his aims become crowning achievements.

Under scrutiny by some on the City Council, the mayor’s administration is distancing itself from the company it worked to recruit. As Uber drivers roam city streets, the legislation to govern them has not been passed by the City Council.

When that point was raised by two lawmakers in an email sent to the mayor’s office, Colby Cooper, the mayor’s chief of staff, replied: “Please keep in mind, Uber launched its ridesharing services, not the Mayor’s office.”

He added later: “Your concerns are actually between you and Uber.”

Proposed changes to the municipal law that regulates shuttles, taxis and limousines was introduced to the City Council this week, but was sent to a public safety committee for further discussion before a vote.

Put forth by the mayor, and sponsored by Councilman Levon Manzie, the amendment would insert a new definition for so-called “transportation network companies” to operate alongside all other forms of commercial transportation.

Uber was welcomed by the mayor, who announced its arrival in Bienville Square last week at a press conference, going for a ride himself around the block in one of the cars. By that token, another set of questions have emerged about the legality of Uber’s current operations in Mobile and who, if anyone, permitted them to come?

“The reality is we are dealing with a scenario where technology is outpacing regulations,” Cooper wrote to each of the councilors in the email,  “and is creating a lot of gray areas for municipalities across the country.”

Addressing the mayor, Councilman John Williams said the actions were “beyond your authority — if not completely illegal.”

Councilwoman Bess Rich agreed, saying it “equates to allowing a business to build on property prior to a rezoning on the property if required.”

The mayor’s office has not yet answered any questions about whether Uber falls under the existing vehicles for hire ordinance, and whether drivers will eventually have to stop giving rides. When asked, Cooper only said the mayor proposed the amended ordinance “so this gray area can be cleared up and this new technology regulated” in the city.

Test runs have occurred in as many 42 of cities, said Councilman Manzie said, and that’s what he believes this is. “But they didn’t just show up in the middle of the city and just start dispatching cars out,” he said. “Somebody in each of those respective cities had to give some kind of tentative OK for them to do business and I think that’s what occurred here.”

Cities around the country are grappling with the nuances of the Uber business model, a concept built around a still emerging “sharing economy,” in which services are provided from one person to another, outside a traditional business.

Many council members said they were keeping an open mind to the service as its merits are debated in the near future. The committee meeting to discuss the “Uber” ordinance was scheduled for June 30 at 2 p.m., and it’s expected back before the full council on July 7.

Councilman Joel Daves declined to comment on the current situation. Daves said he’s willing to consider new ideas. “I’m going to withhold judgement on any of these matters until I get a hold of more facts than I have today,” Daves said.


[“source – al.com”]