The recent discussion about the Ban the Box initiative at the City Commission is a clear example of how a politician’s ambition can get out of hand.
We all know politicians have ambition. However, good politicians can tie their ambitions to policies that are consistent with the constituents they represent. And really good politicians can take an issue that they hold dear and is not widely accepted, present an argument for the need of a new policy, develop a consensus and prove that they are a leader.
At the meeting on Ban the Box, Mayor Andrew Gillum failed on both accounts.
First, some background.
Ban the Box is a slogan used by a number of groups who are seeking to have any questions about criminal background removed from employment applications. The movement started in the early 2000’s and continues today.
The supporters for Ban the Box say that people that have made a mistake and paid there debt to society should be able to get an interview before being rejected by a check in a box. Sounds simple and a number of people think it is a good idea.
However, as with most three word political slogans, Ban the Box takes a complex issue and sells it as a simple fix that is really not that simple.
Research shows that the implementation of the Ban the Box is difficult and there is no standard policy.
For example some jurisdictions include private employers, others limit it to only government jobs. Some jurisdictions allow questions about criminal background in the first interview, others only after a conditional job offer. Some jurisdictions allow the questions for some positions and not others.
A policy with this many moving parts should be properly vetted before making a change. But this did not happen with this proposal.
The usual practice of vetting issues through the City’s Target Issue Committee process did not take place with Ban the Box. Instead Mayor Gillum, through City Manager Anita Favors-Thompson, presented a change in policy to the City Commission that instituted a removal of the criminal background questionnaire from the employment application for certain City jobs.
Based on the new policy, the criminal background would be completed after a candidate has been provided a conditional offer of employment.
Also, instead of seeking a vote from the City Commission approving the implementation of the new policy at the last Commission meeting, the City Manager had already made her decision and was giving the Commission only an opportunity to endorse the change.
This did not go well.
After City Commissioner Scott Maddox requested the Commission vote on the issue, he provided a well researched rationale on why a change was not needed and provided a viable alternative.
This was followed by other Commissioners raising questions about the implementation of a change.
Commissioner Ziffer asked if Banning the Box would open up the City to more lawsuits and Commissioner Miller was not sure when the criminal background question should be asked: before or after an offer of employment. It was obvious that some Commissioners were frustrated and needed more information to properly debate the issue.
After some very awkward moments, the issue was postponed. But why did this happen?
It gets back to Mayor Andrew Gillum and his political ambitions. Mayor Gillum is paid handsomely as the Executive Director of the Young Elected Officials Network, a national group that supports aggressive versions of Ban the Box.
The national political blog, The Huffington Post, has projected Gillum as statewide candidate in 2018.
Gillum is a high profile figure and it appears he is trying to increase his national stature by implementing policies here in Tallahassee that are popular in other cities throughout the country.
More than once during the discussion, supporters talked about how Ban the Box had been adopted in cities through the US. These cities include San Francisco, Detroit, Atlanta and Washington D.C.
Now it is not a shock to see a politician seeking national recognition. And it is not a bad thing if it is done in a way that addresses community needs and demonstrates leadership.
However, if it is done in a way that lacks transparency and thoughtfulness and attention to detail, it can appear extremely self-serving for a person in Mayor Gillum’s position.
And this is what happened with the Ban the Box issue.
There was not one study or audit provided that showed that this is a City of Tallahassee problem. There was no Human Resource data summarizing how City applicants who checked the box were treated in the employment process. No one checked with private businesses or reached out to the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce for input.
In short, there was no demonstrated need for a policy change.
Ban the Box passed two weeks later with a 3-2 vote. The City Commissioners that voted against the proposal sent a signal to Mayor Gillum.
Hopefully, in the future, the Mayor will properly vet the issues he seeks to implement as policy in Tallahassee, Florida with the people that live in Tallahassee, Florida.