Cleveland Heights City Council walks back call for extended background checks on vacancy applicants by Cleveland.com
CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- After lengthy debate, City Council scrapped plans for any additional background checks on applicants seeking the at-large seat vacated by Melissa Yasinow in March.
The reversal came prior to council convening Monday (May 18) into an online executive session to review the 20 applications and come up with a short list of finalists, who will be checked to verify that they are registered voters in Cleveland Heights who are current on their taxes -- property and income.
There has been some fluctuation on whether local income tax payments have been checked in the past on potential appointees.
But in this instance, they will. What won’t be checked are criminal and civil court records, bankruptcy or foreclosure proceedings, sex offender registries and social media postings.
Several members of council initially expressed concern about potential embarrassment if one of their appointees wound up running for the seat and some "skeletons in the closet" were discovered at that point, as Councilwoman Melody Joy Hart put it.
But Hart withdrew her request after Councilwoman Davida Russell voiced concerns about "systemic racism" entering the process and "cutting out a segment of the community with rules laws and regulations that may hinder a person's ability to be appointed to office."
Saying that council was "taking it a little too far," Russell pointed out that the seat pays about $9,000 a year, likening the position to serving as "volunteers with a stipend."
She argued that no surrounding communities have additional requirements for council vacancies.
When Hart asked if there was anything that could be done to take racism out of the process, Vice Mayor Kahlil Seren -- who along with Hart, Mary Dunbar and Mike Ungar favored some form of additional background checks -- decided that would be very difficult, if not impossible.
As an example, Russell pointed to people convicted of felonies at age 18 who have gone on to lead productive lives in their communities.
Seren mentioned the possibility of marijuana-related convictions, as well as "people who had had financial troubles who could bring something meaningful to council."
While he noted that he could do most of the public records checks himself, Seren added that "I don't need city staff to sift through somebody's Twitter feed."
Ungar had brought up the possibility of hiring the company that his law firm uses to conduct background checks, including education verification on resumes, at a cost of around $75 per person, which Dunbar thought was reasonable for the amount of work.
City Law Director Bill Hanna noted that using an outside agency would require written authorization from the council applicant, as well as the opportunity to respond.
When she brought up the possibility of further background checks at the May 4 council meeting, Hart mentioned the unspecified concerns of at least one resident.
Ungar said Monday that he had also heard concerns from the public, although he was still not sure what they were.
"I truly believe our community is so active that, if there is something out there about a candidate, then somebody's going to know about it," Russell said. "And if there's something to it, then don't vote for them."
Seeing that the consensus of council to add to the background requirements had disappeared -- other than also contacting the Regional Income Tax Agency -- Mayor Jason Stein ended the public discussion prior to the executive session to review the individual applicants.
The list of finalists was expected to be released later in the week, followed by interviews and further discussion at a future meeting.
“And there’s nothing in the City Charter that says a choice has to be made,” Stein added.