Uber Courts Burlington City Councilors Ahead of Vote | Off Message

Uber Courts Burlington City Councilors Ahead of Vote


John Grimaldi, left, and fellow Uber drivers listen as city councilors ask questions about the transportation service. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • John Grimaldi, left, and fellow Uber drivers listen as city councilors ask questions about the transportation service.
Uber laid it all out Monday night in an effort to convince Burlington city councilors to approve a temporary agreement that would allow its drivers to ferry passengers here legally. 

Burlington's city attorney had started hashing out the proposed agreement with Uber soon after the ride-hailing service launched in the Queen City last fall. On Monday, the council voted unanimously to send the document to two committees for review, and it's expected to either approve or reject the proposal later this month. (Uber maintains that it's currently legal; the city attorney disagrees.)

Local Uber drivers — who included a single mother, a truck driver and a former New York City cabbie — showed up en masse to sing Uber's praises and reassure councilors that the service they provide is safe and reliable. 

After giving a PowerPoint presentation explaining how the app works, an Uber representative named Laura Shen emphasized that the company is "providing economic opportunities" to Burlington residents. Shen estimated that hundreds of drivers have provided "tens of thousands of rides" in Burlington since the service launched. Their top drivers here have raked in as much as $1,400 in a week, she claimed.  

Uber aficionados have a key ally: the mayor. Miro Weinberger sent out a four-page single-space memo ahead of the meeting, making the case for allowing Uber in the city. He made a bold argument that basically amounted to this: Uber is good for the environment, because it makes it easier to not own a car. 

Councilors generally seemed receptive, if not immediately sold. Republican Councilor Kurt Wright questioned the company's background-check policy, and Progressive Councilor Selene Colburn reminded people the company has created controversies — and butted heads with governments — worldwide. 

Not everyone was on board just yet. 

Airport commissioner Bill Keogh, who serves on the city's taxi administration board, sent a single-line email to Seven Days mid-meeting. His conclusion? "Looks like we are throwing our taxis under the bus!" Keogh and his colleague, Jeff Munger, who chairs the board, are concerned that the proposed agreement does not require Uber to adhere to the same fare structure that applies to taxis. 

At earlier council meetings and through frequent email communications with city officials, traditional taxi drivers have made their displeasure known. The operating agreement would require Uber to follow a number of the city's taxi regulations but not all of them — and that's a sticking point for traditional drivers who argue that it's fundamentally unfair to exempt Uber from any of the rules that apply to them. None showed up to speak at Monday's meeting.