Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Lou Hamilton, Controversial Taxi Commission Chair, Resigns

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2015 at 6:15 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/DANIEL HORACIO AGOSTINI

Lou Hamilton, the longtime chair of the Metropolitan Taxi Commission, who came under fire during the year's high-stakes debate surrounding Uber, has resigned from the commission. 

Hamilton told Riverfront Times that his resignation was effective as of December 15. "I've been trying to get off this commission since earlier this year," he says, laughing. "My parting word is that there's only so much fun one guy can handle. I'm done."

A lobbyist by trade, Hamilton was an original member of the taxi commission, better known as MTC, which was founded in 2002. Originally appointed by Mayor Francis Slay, he was appointed to his most recent four-year term by County Executive Steve Stenger. That term was not set to expire until 2017.

During the last year, as ride-sharing company Uber pushed for access to the St. Louis market, Hamilton pushed back — while publicly welcoming the company, he insisted its drivers meet certain requirements that Uber insisted were deal breakers, including fingerprints and drug tests.

Things got nasty — and also a little bit funny, should you be inclined to laugh at this sort of thing. Hamilton, a famously colorful conversationalist, had to deactivate his Twitter account after publicly slamming a fellow commissioner as an "insufferable douche." He also raised some eyebrows after suggesting outrage over the MTC's unwillingness to clear a path for Uber was "white privilege."

With Hamilton at the helm, the taxi commission did eventually approve a set of ridesharing regulations — but only after Uber launched service in St. Louis in defiance of the regulators.

The company has been embroiled in litigation with the commission ever since. First Uber sued the MTC, alleging anti-trust violations; then the MTC sued Uber, claiming its drivers were in violation of the rules. Recently, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Autrey referred the cases for mediation.

Hamilton says he'd wanted to get off the commission even before the Uber dispute turned ugly, but that County Executive Stenger had urged him to stay on. "All the Uber stuff erupted over the summer, and the county executive told me, 'Don't quit,'" he says. "The mayor's office said the same thing." Once the new regulations were approved in September, Hamilton says, he felt he'd done what he needed to do it and it was time to move on.

Hamilton fleshed out that thought in a lengthy resignation letter to Stenger, dated December 8. Near the end, he defended his insistence on fingerprints — and took a shot at the near-breathless coverage of Uber's entry into the St. Louis market.

One may have different opinions on the efficacy of fingerprint based criminal background checks, and the Internet based checks upon which Uber hangs its hat. But neither my opinion nor Uber’s is of any significance. What counts is the law, and until it is changed by the Missouri General Assembly, fingerprints and commercial drivers licenses are required in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The debate about ride sharing has been animated, and with a few exceptions civil. It is surprising, however, that as our region faces life-altering issues like the homicide crisis and growing economic challenges, so much of our civic real estate has been occupied by a debate over what is essentially another taxi service.

The office of County Executive Stenger gave us this statement this morning:

I would like to thank Lou Hamilton for his 12 years of public service on the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission. When the MTC was formed in 2003, the taxi industry in St. Louis was in complete disarray. It was unregulated, dysfunctional and hadn’t been updated in decades. Under Lou’s leadership, the industry was cleaned up, modernized, and brought into the 21st century.

Lou followed the directives of Mayor Slay and I and brought changes to the MTC code which allowed for ride-sharing companies to enter the St. Louis market.

Hamilton's departure leaves a vacancy on the MTC. By state ordinance, four of the commission's nine members must be representatives of taxi companies; Hamilton held one of the non-taxi seats. But his departure will certainly shift the balance of power — the only question is in what direction.

The new chairman will be MTC member Tom Reeves, president of Pulaski Bank.

Editor's note: This post was updated after publication to include a quotation from Hamilton's resignation letter. Also, we misstated the number of MTC vacancies. Stenger recently appointed a taxi driver to fill the second vacancy, which our story did not reflect. We regret the error.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com



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