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Cole, Morrison question use of employee criminal background checks

Monday, September 30, 2013 by Michael Kanin

An audit designed to examine the effectiveness of the city’s approach to criminal background checks has raised the ire of two City Council members, who thought they had removed such checks from city hiring protocol in 2008.


At last week’s Council Audit and Finance Committee, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Laura Morrison questioned what they characterized as assumptions embedded in the audit. “This is the first time I’ve ever had a concern about an audit per say because I feel that there was sort of an underlying …objective and perception from the audit construct – and I’m not talking about anyone in particular – that it is appropriate to do criminal background checks on everyone,” Morrison said.


Morrison and Cole both voted for a 2008 Council resolution that “banned the box” – or eliminated criminal background checks – for most city employees. The resolution initially narrowed those eligible for the background checks to only employees and prospective employees that work with finances and come in regular contact with “vulnerable populations” of the public.


In 2010, the city expanded the employee population eligible for background checks to include city executives. Under the new rules, some city executives have had criminal background checks. The rest await processing.


Now, the city’s Human Resources Department conducts roughly 7,000 background checks annually. That figure includes temporary city employees who meet the criteria.


The audit made three major findings: That the city’s Human Resources Department “does not have an adequate process to determine which City employees should receive” the criminal background checks; that new city hires and employees who transfer and are eligible for background checks “do not consistently receive (them)”; and that the Human Resources Department “has not established adequate oversight and monitoring of the…program.”


After presentation of the audit, Cole immediately raised her concerns. “The idea (with the 2008 resolution) was that we were leaving a significant segment of the population not eligible to be hired by the city,” she offered. “So it wasn’t so much from the viewpoint of protecting the city . .  It was to open up the pool of jobs to more applicants.”


Human Resources Director Mark Washington told Council members that his read of the audit was a broad suggestion that all city employees be subject to background checks. City Auditor Ken Mory denied that Washington’s suggestion was the case.


“That was not a finding of the audit,” said Mory. “We support the policy of the City Council to provide those opportunities but, as we always do with all audits, we provide the information objectively that we found out there. If you go back and look at our recommendations, our recommendations envision the fact that it should be done by addressing what needs to be done – and also, when people are found to have a positive (criminal) finding, that a panel review that to determine whether they still should be hired, or maybe another job found.”


Morrison said that any change to the city’s background check policy should come through Council. She added that she and her colleagues had made a decision to step away from the status quo with regard to criminal background checks.


“There was a survey, and the survey that was done showed that a lot of places do 100 percent background checks,” she said. “That does not tell me that is a best practice. That tells me that there are communities out there that are doing 100 percent, and we have a different perspective.”

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