Since being approved by the Birmingham City Council to serve as a consulting firm for Councilor Kim Rafferty on Tuesday, LW Associates LLC have changed their website considerably.
Whether or not this means the consulting firm has changed gears completely, shying away from the overt political language that previously characterized the website, remains unclear. Numerous efforts to reach the owner of the firm, Lou Willie IV, a former staff member in Rafferty’s office, have gone unanswered.
The address listed for the consulting firm doubles as the law offices of Lou Willie III, who is also affiliated with the consulting firm LW Associates. As it turns out, Willie III represents several cab companies in Birmingham. The significance of this: Rafferty has been outspoken on the subject of a new rideshare company that wants to operate in Birmingham – in direct competition with cab companies.
When asked about this, Rafferty replied, “Yes, [Willie III] represents a few cab companies – and he did even when Lou [Willie IV] worked for me from 2009-2011. Lou is the one who worked to rewrite the code that was put on the books in 2012, and at times we went head-to-head with taxi and other for-hire interests, including his dad – and won the debate every time.”
Over the last few weeks Rafferty has made comments about a company called Uber — a rideshare enterprise that connects users with drivers through a phone app — potentially operating in Birmingham.
Hugh Evans III, general counsel for the Alabama Ethics Commission, said that, given her ties to LW Associates, Rafferty should try and distance herself from voting on the resolution to update the current transportation code.
“Whether or not there is a direct personal gain is arguable. But just the way it is perceived, my advice would be for her to stay away from it,” Evans III said. “It just seems pretty convoluted.”
However, on Tuesday, the Birmingham City Council voted unanimously to adopt the changes to the code, which called for strict regulations for all vehicle-for-hire companies, including Uber. Under the company’s current business model, the changes will make it difficult for Uber to operate in Birmingham.
“Uber is a technology company, not a taxi company. The current policies in place pertain to taxi companies and were written decades ago, before smart phones were around,” Taylor Bennett, a spokesperson for Uber, said.
The changes to the transportation code that was passed Tuesday, “puts Uber under the taxi umbrella,” Bennett said.
The resolution is as follows.
“An Ordinance amending Title 12, “Licensing and Regulation,” Chapter 16, “Taxis and Vehicles for Hire,” as amended, of the General Code of the City of Birmingham, 1980, and the hearing of all interested parties. [Second Reading] (Submitted by the City Attorney)(Recommended by the Transportation and Communications Committee).”
“What we are doing is putting the definitions into the code so that we can recognize [app-based companies] as transportation companies,” Rafferty said in a video released by her office this week.
“We want to ensure that any transportation business that’s conducted in the city of Birmingham that impacts our citizens, that takes our money, that they’re qualified and they’re safe in their operations,” Rafferty said.
On July 22, the Birmingham City Council voted for an extension so that they could have more time to review the codes before voting on the resolution that would allow Uber to work in Birmingham.
“The new code is very practical and contains stricter regulations, higher fees and stringent enforcement measures than previous code, which was petty and convoluted. [This is] an attempt to clean up the for-hire industry in Birmingham,” Rafferty explained. “Therefore across the industry no type of for-hire transportation group won much. They realized to achieve a greater good on public safety and practical regulations, everyone had to acquiesce to the changes.”
Rafferty, who serves as the chair for the Transportation and Communications Committee, was asked if she believed hiring the consulting firm LW Associates would be reason to recuse herself from any transportation board or committee meetings.
“I do not sit on any transportation board but am chair of transportation committee. I had no reason then, nor is there reason now, to recuse myself on the issues of transportation that come before my committee,” Rafferty said.
The contract for LW Associates, which is addressed to Willie IV, states that, “Your scope of service will be to provide planning and strategic consultation regarding projects related to transportation and veteran services to the office of Kimberly Rafferty, Council District 2. The fee for these services is in an amount not to exceed Thirty Thousand Dollars and 00/Cents ($30,000) to be paid in a one lump sum payment.”
However, as previously reported, the website for LW Associates originally contained language centered around the premise of campaigning and re-election. As of this writing, the website has been stripped of any content related to “campaigning” or “building your brand and visibility.”
Willie IV could not be reached for comment about the website or what services, specifically, his firm would be providing for Rafferty.
Also, the website previously contained job titles and bios for both Willie III and Willie IV. Those have also been removed. All that remains at the time of this writing is a photo of both men, a phone number and an address for the consulting firm.
Thomas Reid, who lives and works in Birmingham, recently wrote an open letter to Birmingham City Council. “Ride sharing applications like Uber are one of those opportunities that will be discussed by the City Council on Tuesday. This transportation service can either propel Birmingham forward by providing safe reliable transportation around our city encouraging downtown growth, or it can be over-regulated by our Council deterring their implementation and show that Birmingham prefers to maintain the status quo,” Reid writes in the letter.
He goes on to specifically mention what he calls Rafferty’s “mission” to not allow Uber to operate in Birmingham. “It actually says a lot that Birmingham doesn’t have Uber yet. The Chair of the Transportation Committee Kim Rafferty seems to have made it her mission to make it as difficult as possible for Uber to come to Birmingham,” Reid says.
“She makes claims about safety when it is abundantly clear that Uber is a safer ride and better insured than a taxi-cab and frequently defaults to her ‘level playing field argument,’” Reid says.
He goes on to compare Rafferty’s stance towards Uber to a video store owner who is against Netflix.
“She isn’t comfortable with this innovative, new, high-tech idea that could change the system she’s been in charge of for some time. The opportunity to bring a fundamental change to Birmingham’s broken transportation system has fallen in her lap, and she’s holding her nose and pushing it away,” the letter reads.
Rafferty, on the other hand, says that the city of Birmingham reached out to Uber in an attempt to have a larger discussion about web-based app companies operating in Birmingham.
“I have not even thought about Uber specifically in making the code edits we are proposing. We simply offered adding in definitions to begin to recognize web-based app companies as transportation companies. Their viability in Birmingham will flesh itself out when they make an application to operate as a business here. What code modifications are warranted to adapt to their business model will come after well-thought-out and constructive conversation with everyone,” Rafferty said.
“We invited Uber to the table as a precursor to this point,” Rafferty continued. “They had not approached us at all. We reached out to them. And we are still waiting for productive discourse from them, not hyped up, misleading sensationalism and bully tactic blasts through social media. That is not how one should do business. It is irresponsible, lacking in integrity, and illustrates a total disregard for due process and fair market competition. And it prompts serious doubt that their corporate behavior is respectful of the municipalities they locate in, the customers they service, or the drivers they will hire.”
Rafferty believes that the problem with transportation in Birmingham is not an issue with the city’s codes, rather the way that they are enforced, “which is an administrative duty,” she said.
“However, with the plethora of complaints I received on Monday and Tuesday, it has become clear that the current due process of filing complaints is not working. In five years, we have received only a handful of complaints directly. Complaints are welcome in my office anytime and they can be emailed to my office at email@example.com, where we will respond expeditiously and responsibly,” Rafferty said.
When asked about the discrepancy with the phone number listed for her office on the Birmingham City Council’s web page, which is not a working number, Rafferty responded by saying, “It would not be hard to get the correct number to my office or my email. You were on an outdated page, not the official Council website. As well, the main number for city hall is 254-2000 and council is 254-2294, for future reference. I guess you just did not try hard enough.”
*(Update: 7/29/14, 6:23 p.m.): Post updated to include passage of the new resolution updating the transport code, as well as comments from the Alabama Ethics Commission and Uber.