Black desk chair on bright yellow background.
Board and commission appointees must present a resume and references, but do not undergo a criminal background check.

Every year, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, appoints hundreds of people to the city’s dozens of boards and commissions, which give ordinary citizens a voice in everything from city planning to liquor control.

Those appointments keep Alphia Curry constantly busy. As the city’s boards and commissions manager, she’s responsible for compiling information on dozens of applicants to present to the mayor. The lengthy process involves resume checks, scouring LinkedIn profiles and running Google searches. 

What it doesn’t involve is criminal background checks.

In 2014, the city officially “banned the box.” That meant removing questions about a prospective employee’s criminal record from city job applications. In 2018, Kansas City went a step further. An ordinance barred employers from asking about applicants’ criminal records unless they are in the final selection pool.

The ordinance doesn’t completely remove criminal offenses from the decision-making process. An applicant previously convicted of an offense that is “reasonably related to the duties and responsibilities of the position” can still be denied on those grounds.

But while the city may apply that standard to people applying for municipal jobs, board or commission appointees are not subject to criminal background checks. 

“I think that we try really hard to be progressive, and a past criminal record, past marijuana use, shouldn’t hold you back,” said Morgan Said, chief of staff for Mayor Quinton Lucas’ office. “So if people are saying, ‘I have something on my record and that makes me fearful of applying,’ then that’s something we should address.”

References are checked for candidates

The importance of vetting board and commission candidates became apparent in Kansas City at the start of Mayor Mark Funkhouser’s term. 

He appointed Frances Semler, an avid gardener and neighborhood association president, to the high-profile Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners in 2007. But his office missed Semler’s membership in the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which takes a militant stance against illegal immigration. Semler eventually resigned from the parks board, but not before the National Council of La Raza canceled a convention planned for Kansas City and the issue became a major distraction in Funkhouser’s early going. 

Curry doesn’t want a similar mistake. She’ll run an online search of each candidate’s name to see if any important information comes up, and then call references provided by the applicant.

“Some people are easy to Google and find out where they work, or sometimes that’s already provided for us,” she said. “Others, not as much. If they’re being recommended, that obviously helps, as they have a personal connection with an office.”

Candidates are required to fill out a conflict of interest form prior to being officially approved for a seat. Said said there have been instances where someone makes it through the vetting process but is ultimately denied a seat due to a disclosed conflict. 

Use of criminal background checks varies by city

All cities wrangle with board and commission appointments, and “best practices” are difficult to come by. While reference checks and online searches are standard, decisions on criminal background checks vary from city to city.

Austin, Texas, does not take that step. 

“It is not required by City Code to provide a background check due to the fact that these representatives serve at the will of the council members,” said Shelley Parks, an Austin public information officer. “Council members usually appoint people within their communities and have an understanding of who they are appointing.”

Kristy Yager, a public information officer with Oklahoma City, said the city has never run background checks prior to making appointments. 

But Nick Dunne, public information officer for St. Louis, said his city does run criminal background checks.

“It’s been the city’s policy for quite some time, so I can’t speak to its reasoning when it was originally implemented,” he said. 

Other cities are working to tighten background requirements for appointees. In California, West Hollywood council members voted in favor of adding a background check for all appointed officials.

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Emily Wolf was a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She was a Report for America corps member.