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Columbia City Council “bans the box,” tables ride-share rules

The Columbia City Council unanimously approved Monday an ordinance that restricts employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history.

The ordinance, known as “Ban the Box,” would allow businesses to conduct background checks once it’s made a conditional offer of employment. Supporters said by removing the box on a job application that asks if someone has a prior felony conviction, it helps those out of prison try to make steps to improve their lives.

“Ban the Box” is the first suggestion to come to the city council from the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence. The group first introduced the idea in January, and spent much of the year hosting informational sessions on the ordinance and talking with business owners in town. Dan Hanneken, a member of the task force, said getting a job is the most successful route for prior criminals to take to avoid committing a crime again.

“When you identify the person qualified for the job, without looking through a lens that had identified them and stigmatized them, at that point it becomes fair game to ask about their criminal history,” Hanneken said.

Matt McCormick of the Columbia CHamber of Commerce said by waiting until the conditional offer of employment, it hurt an applicant’s chances if they had a prior felony conviction. McCormick said if a background check revealed the applicant had the prior conviction, it would disqualify the candidate rather than give them a chance to explain the transgression. McCormick said, however, he supported the idea of removing the question of prior felonies from job applications.

The council approved the measure 7-0. Michael Trapp, a co-chair of the Task Force on Community Violence, said the public safety improvement of the ordinance positively outweighed the setbacks it might impose on businesses.

Later in the meeting, the council decided to table new rules related to “transportation network services” until its February 2 meeting. The new rules would apply to ride-sharing programs, such as Uber, a company that launched service in Columbia in October, and would require drivers to obtain permits through the city, similar to traditional taxi cab companies. The cost of the permits also pays for background checks, according to Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine.

Uber Regional Manager Pooteen Kant said the company already performs background checks on its drivers, and buying a driving permit in the city would be a strict barrier of entry for the company. However, some members of the city council cited public safety concerns for those using Uber, as well as rules governing traditional taxi cab companies seeming outdated.

Kant told the city council Uber began charging customers in Columbia November 16. St. Romaine pointed out that Uber was operating illegally in the city, since it did not have a business license in town yet. City Manager Mike Matthes told Uber drivers at the meeting that the city would begin “enforcing the law” because of it.

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