It’s starting to look like Jonathan Schoenakase’s success may have lit the fuse for his potential downfall.
Schoenakase is at the center of a controversy that’s been commanding the City Council’s attention for the past two weeks.
He is the operator of Courtesy Rides, a service that provides free transportation to anyone who calls. Most of those who call are intoxicated individuals who need a ride home from a local bar and are grateful they won’t have to get behind the wheel and risk being arrested for DUI.
While Schoenakase doesn’t charge a fee for his service, he willingly accepts donations and tips. Consequently, he claims he’s a “service” and not a “business” and, as such, shouldn’t be required to abide by the city’s taxi and limousine ordinance, which typically requires a taxi operator to jump through all sorts of complicated hoops to get a required $10 license.
The city, however, is considering amending the ordinance to define “for hire” as any transportation service that accepts “consideration of any kind,” including donations or tips. This would effectively require Courtesy Rides to adhere to the standard licensing requirements.
Since Schoenakase started his business in early 2008, city officials and the Quincy Police Department have pretty much looked the other way and haven’t tried to interfere with his operation. They didn’t try to prosecute him for not having a taxi license because, after all, he was just an individual giving rides to people too drunk to drive themselves. He might even be saving a few lives by keeping drunken drivers off the streets.
But then Schoenakase started to expand his service. He added a couple more vehicles and got a couple of his friends to start answering calls. Then he apparently started using an RV as a bus to haul groups of people from place to place. He also stepped up promotion of Courtesy Rides. One alderman said his business card touts “round-trip” transportation services, not just one-way rides home from taverns.
This suddenly starting looking more like a traditional taxi or shuttle service rather than a one-man campaign to help to keep drunks off the streets.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, Police Chief Rob Copley acknowledged Schoenakase’s non-taxi taxi service has become “more noticeable” to law enforcement officials since he added the bus to his fleet.
“That’s drawn warranted attention,” Copley told aldermen. He noted how a police investigator from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office is now planning to check out the service to see if appropriate license plates are being used on Courtesy Rides’ vehicles, particularly the bus.
“He’s deviated from his original mission” of picking up drunken individuals from local bars, Copley said, and now appears to be branching into other transportation services, thereby calling attention to himself and forcing city officials to take notice.
The bus issue was a major red flag for city officials because if an accident were to occur with multiple injuries, it’s conceivable the city could theoretically be held liable for allowing the bus to operate on local streets without adequate licensing, inspections or insurance.
Under questioning from aldermen, Copley said the police department hasn’t received any significant complaints about Courtesy Rides.
Copley also revealed that police used a sting-style undercover operation on several occasions to see if Schoenakase would try to coerce a tip or donation from a passenger who declined to give anything for a ride. Each time, he said, Schoenakase did nothing onerous to demand any kind of compensation.
It appears the only thing he’s done wrong is grow his service too fast so it’s now looking more like a business than a charitable endeavor. That could end up costing him in the long run.