On Tuesday, William Barnes, an executive from the ride-sharing company Uber, penned a guest editorial in the Las Vegas Review Journal.
His column calls Uber a “safe, innovative, job-creating alternative…” to taxicabs. This is just the latest effort by Uber to win the hearts and minds of Nevadans, even as the company fights the state in court.
Judges in Las Vegas and Reno are both reviewing legal disputes between Uber attorneys and the Nevada Attorney General over whether the company can legally operate in the state.
Meanwhile, Uber and its drivers have continued to operate, at their own risk.
The head of the agency regulating Uber in Las Vegas, the Nevada Taxicab Authority, does not have a deep background running his agency. Tom Ely is kind of new on the job.
“Very new on the job. I have been in this position since the 27th of October, so a little over two weeks,” Ely said.
Actually Ely has been interim head of the cab authority for three weeks as of this past Monday.
But perhaps time has been going by too quickly to keep track. From the day he started, Ely has been preoccupied with the activities of one company. And even before he assumed the post, Ely was on hand to observe one of the first enforcement actions against an Uber driver. It was Oct. 24, the day Uber launched in Nevada.
“Taxicab authority investigators were beginning to make traffic stops based on information that was being provided to us and the fact that we could see where the Uber vehicles were on their app,” Ely said.
For the most part, the Las Vegas cab authority conducted its operation on that day, the same way it handles all unlicensed taxis, otherwise known as gypsy cabs.
“We had been doing gypsy cab operations, so we were looking operating the same way with these, and I wanted to see personally what happened and I was out at the Fashion Show Mall when one of the stops was made,” Ely said.
Ely said investigators made the stop and talked to the driver and the passengers.
“The passenger provided information, ‘yeah we called Uber,’” Ely said. He went on to say the investigators followed normal operations for gypsy cab citations.
One thing occurred on that day that was not entirely routine.
“Two of the investigators there happened to be the undercover investigators that handle a lot of gypsy cab and long-hauling investigations,” Ely said.
Halfway through the stop, according to Ely, the Uber driver took out his smart phone and started taking photographs of the undercover officers.
“The Uber driver said he was going to put them on social media. So they covered their faces up. It was referred to as a ski mask, it was not,” Ely said.
So that became the image that went with the story: an Uber driver being detained by two officers each wearing a balaclava, which is a kind of ski mask.
The cab authority came off as heavy-handed, and it was a hard lesson for Ely to learn his first day on the job.
“Are we wearing masks anymore? No,” Ely said.
Masks or no masks, the enforcement operations against Uber have continued. Statewide, the Taxicab Authority says 34 citations have been issued to Uber drivers in the past three weeks.
“Uber and the rides that the Uber drivers are offering are illegal,” Ely said.
Ely said his agency is making sure that commercial transportation follows standards of safety and fairness.
“What we don’t want is for someone to come in and start up a transportation services that is unsafe, unfair and doesn’t meet the standards that the state has set for operating in Nevada,” Ely said.
But from the moment Uber arrived in Nevada, the company has insisted that state law is not clear where the company is concerned.
The company declined to be interviewed about the legality of its operations, citing pending litigation. But in an interview with KNPR last month, Uber spokeswoman Eva Berhend carefully stepped around questions about the law.
“We believe that right now there is no regulatory structure. So we’re looking forward to working with everyone in Nevada to make sure that people in Las Vegas and everywhere, who are looking for seamless, safe transportation, can get those connections and that is what Uber is offering,” Behrend said.
Behrend was also quick to distinguish between Uber’s activities and those of taxi companies.
“So Uber is a technology platform. We connect riders and drivers through the platform itself, and the drivers’ contract with or they license the platform from Uber. They use the platform to connect to riders and grow their own small business,” Behrend said.
And this is the legal argument the company is making in court that because its business model is different, Uber should be allowed to operate in Nevada until state law catches up with new technology. In the next few weeks, with cases pending in both Las Vegas and Reno, courts will likely decide which side of the law Uber is on.
“If they’re operating illegally, we’re asking that an injunction be order to that they are asked to cease and desist.” Ely said.
In the meantime, Ely says the fines and impoundment of Uber vehicle will continue.
“We would welcome Uber and any other company coming into the Nevada. They just need to comply with the law that exists now,” Ely said.
State courts are currently deciding whether to consolidate the cases in either Reno or Las Vegas, something that will be decided within the week.