Uber Dispute Leads to Nasty Words, "Douche" Allegation From Taxi Commission Chair

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Taxi drivers in Chicago protest Uber. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/SCOTT L
  • Photo courtesy of Flickr/Scott L
  • Taxi drivers in Chicago protest Uber.

Last night, St. Louis Metropolitan Taxi Commission Chairman Lou Hamilton sniped on Twitter that fellow commissioner Chris Sommers was "an insufferable douche" and suggested Sommers should go to work as a lobbyist for Uber.

Sommers, in response, jabbed at Hamilton for his affiliation with Jeff Roorda, the former police union honcho, Darren Wilson apologist and failed candidate for state senate. Oh, and he made fun of Hamilton's previously reported affinity for outfitting his SUV with red lights and a siren.

This, apparently, is what Twitter does to grown men -- Twitter, and a high-stakes battle over whether Uber can enter the St. Louis market.

The spat, suffice it to say, was the kind of drama that Twitter users live for. But it wasn't necessarily good for Hamilton's attempt to claim the moral high ground:

Reached by Riverfront Times this morning, Hamilton sounded rueful, but unapologetic. "I said it, I own it, and my only regret is that I didn't say it in a private message instead of putting it out there for everyone on Twitter," he said.

Uber wants to bring its ridesharing app to St. Louis. But to do that, it needs the blessing of the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxi Commission, or MTC, which regulates cabs in both St. Louis city and county. Uber now fears it's at an impasse with the commission -- they're insisting that Uber drivers undergo background checks run by the Missouri Highway Patrol, which include fingerprinting, as well as drug testing. Uber has its own background checks, which it believes to be superior -- and has said those requirements would be a deal killer in St. Louis.

Hamilton has noted that Uber agreed to such terms in Houston -- why should St. Louis be any different? But Uber supporters note that most U.S. cities have been just fine with Uber's background checks, no drug testing or fingerprints needed.

That gets us to this week, when Uber issued a letter to the taxi commission offering free rides for St. Louisans over the holiday weekend. The taxi commission said no while appearing to say yes -- in essence saying it welcomed the free rides, but only if Uber made its drivers line up for drug testing and fingerprints. No go, said Uber.

And that was that.

Or that should have been that, but for Twitter.

Chris Sommers, the restaurateur behind the Pi chain of pizzerias, was appointed to the taxi commission by Mayor Francis Slay specifically to help bring Uber to St. Louis. He's been an enthusiastic proponent of the service -- and, yesterday, of its offer of free rides.

On Twitter yesterday, Sommers made clear his support for the proposal -- and, later, his belief that the taxi commission's "conditions" were really an attempt to block Uber.

And that didn't sit well with Hamilton, the commission's chairman:

That, then, led to the douche comment. And that led to Hamilton to press delete -- his Twitter account now reveals none of the drama that flared up yesterday, just a sign-off around 7 p.m. last night.

Hamilton did leave up his retweet of an Uber-related message from Mayor Slay. While Slay was publicly supportive of Uber's free-ride offer yesterday, it seems increasingly clear that he, too, supports the more onerous background checks that Uber is resisting.

The taxi commission is poised to consider the matter later this month. If the meeting is anything like last night's Twitter squabble, we might consider popping some popcorn.

Actually, who are we kidding? Meetings are never as good as Twitter squabbles. But we reporters can dream, can't we?

We welcome tips and feedback. Contact the writer at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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