In an abrupt change of course, the city of Portland has renewed Uber's permit to operate in the city for only six months, instead of the customary one year.
Just two weeks ago, Matt Grumm, chief of staff to city transportation commissioner Dan Saltzman, told the Portland Tribune that Uber's permit would be extended a full year when it expired Aug. 1 because the company had "basically been good actors the past six months."
Saltzman had levied a whopping $3,457,000 fine against Uber on Jan. 29 for failing to notify the city of a potential data security breach after Uber's driver records were hacked. That came after the San Francisco-based company began service illegally in Portland in December 2014, without city approval, then deployed Greyball software to thwart city regulators' efforts to monitor the company.
"Uber has had a difficult relationship with the city of Portland dating back to December 2014," Saltzman wrote in his letter issuing the fine. Around the same time, he leveled a warning against Uber by renewing its operating permit only six months instead of a year.
In March, Dave Benson, the Portland Bureau of Transportation's parking services group manager who regulates Uber, said renewing its permit for six months "allows the fine to play itself out."
But Uber appealed that fine and has not yet paid a penny of it.
So it was somewhat surprising when Grumm said in late July that Uber would get a full year's extension. In effect, that would amount to taking the company off probation.
The Tribune's July 19 article relaying Grumm and PBOT's original plan to extend the Uber operating permit for a year included critical remarks from Commissioner Nick Fish, perhaps Uber's biggest critic on the City Council.
"I think it's way too premature to extend the operating agreement by a year," Fish said at the time. In the past, he added, council critics of Uber have had to "push pretty hard to get PBOT to step up on these issues."
John Brady, PBOT communications director, confirmed Thursday that Uber's permit was renewed effective August 1 for six months and not a year. Brady insisted that was always the agency's intention. "From our standpoint, I don't think anything has changed," Brady said.
However Grumm wrote in an email sent Friday morning that plans changed when "Commissioner Fish made it clear he was not thrilled with that idea." In addition, PBOT regulators liked the idea of having Uber's permit expire in February, at the same time when its competitor Lyft's expires, so they will be "synced back up," Grumm wrote.
Fish said Thursday he wasn't informed why PBOT reversed course, but he welcomed the decision.
"I'm delighted to hear it's only six months," he said. That could give city commissioners time to work with a new transportation commissioner in renegotiating terms of Uber's operating agreement with the city, Fish said.
In May, the City Council voted unanimously to create a new "oversight body" to vet Uber and Lyft driver complaints about working conditions, among other issues, and to raise the liability insurance Uber and Lyft carry to the same level paid by taxis. In both cases, the council directed PBOT to prepare formal policies for the council to adopt by year end.
The mandate to report back by year end was depicted as a way to assure Saltzman has a key role in reviewing such proposals, because he is leaving his post in January.
But Mayor Ted Wheeler may announce new bureau oversight assignments for city commissioners as soon as Monday, and scuttlebutt at City Hall suggests he may appoint Commissioner Chloe Eudaly to oversee the transportation bureau, in place of Saltzman.
Uber's regional spokesman in Seattle, Nathan Hambley, declined an interview on the latest twist at City Hall, but issued a statement via email.
"We're pleased our permit has been renewed in Portland. We look forward to continue serving our customers there — both driver partners and riders — and being a partner to the city," Hambley wrote.
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