Alaska move on Uber could set precedent for Fayetteville officials

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 161 views 

The car sharing service Uber has been a thorn in the side of Fayetteville officials since its introduction to the Northwest Arkansas market earlier this year, with Fayetteville police issuing citations to drivers operating ride shares for the company. But could actions in Alaska pave a legal path to shutting down Uber in Fayetteville?

According to Alaska Dispatch News, the municipality of Anchorage, Alaska, has tried to shut down the car ride service within its jurisdiction because the company does not comply with "local laws governing taxis."

As a result of the company's continuing operation within the city without proper licenses for itself and its drivers, Mayor Dan Sullivan sued in Alaska Superior Court two weeks ago seeking an injunction to half Uber's operations within the city of Anchorage, ADN reported.

Fayetteville City Attorney Kit Williams said he has no plans to follow in Anchorage's footsteps and file a lawsuit against the San Francisco-based company for operating in Fayetteville without following local taxi regulations. Williams said the city will continue focusing its efforts on citing drivers for the service.

"It's theoretically possible to get an injunction against Uber operating within the city limits of Fayetteville," he said. "But it would be something we would only do after a long effort to enforce the (city's) ordinances in a normal way, which we're doing now.”

As for how the city is finding out about Uber drivers and subsequently citing them for operating a taxi without a license, Williams declined to provide details.

"It's not just a moving violation (that gets drivers pulled over)," he explained. "But I don't think I should probably be the one to talk about methods. The more that the drivers know about the officer's methods of detection, the more difficult it could be to enforce the law. It's just like how we don't tell burglars how we plan to catch them in the future.”

He said aside from simply writing citations to drivers working as independent contractors for Uber, which takes a cut of the driver's pay, a lawsuit could be hard to win in court. And the reason basically boils down to technicalities, though if Anchorage is successful it could lead to other cities following Anchorage's lead.

"I expect they (Uber) would say it's independent contractors. We're not operating, just a payment scheme. Then I would have to somehow prove that no, it's an operation. Something like this would be complex and difficult to establish," said Williams.

He also said the city administration has not yet made a legal challenge to Uber's corporate offices a priority. As for why the city's police force is even pursuing drivers for the ride share service, Williams said it comes down to public safety.

"Part of the process (for taxi drivers) is showing us their necessary insurance. It's higher insurance and much more expensive according to taxi drivers. They provide us a policy number and the policy provider notifies the city if it (the policy) is canceled," he said, adding that licensed taxi drivers are also put through an exhaustive police background check and must have their vehicles inspected for road safety by mechanics employed or contracted by the city.

He said while Uber can say its drivers have the necessary insurance to protect customers, there is no way to know for certain without enforcing the city's taxi regulations, another reason the city is targeting Uber drivers and attempting to bring the company under some sort of regulatory oversight.

Williams said the regulation of Uber also allows for protection of the local taxi industry, which he said could see negative economic consequences from Uber's continued operations in Fayetteville.

"With no restraints, it is possible with so many different individuals acting as a taxi that maybe none of the (traditional) taxi companies could survive with the restrictions we place on them. So a city could be left with no taxi service for its citizens.”

While no plan is in place to file a lawsuit, Williams said that could change at the discretion of the Fayetteville mayor or the city council should they choose to up the ante on Uber, but it would come at a price to Fayetteville taxpayers.

"If the city council wants to sue, they can file an ordinance saying they want it to happen," Williams said. "But I would say give me another attorney because I would think this would be too difficult and complex a case to be successful with it. Otherwise, the city council can appropriate money for outside council. And I have resisted that sort of stuff. … But in this case, I would say I could not take on this additional burden and they may consider it."