On December 8, 2015, the Chattanooga City Council voted unanimously (7-0) during a first reading (PDF warning) of the language of a city ordinance that would amend local law to allow ex-cons, including those convicted of felonies, to work for the city government. The city ordinance will be the first item on the agenda for this coming Tuesday, December 15, 2015.
Currently, any felons or other convictions which result in a person losing their right to vote is not allowed to work for the government of Chattanooga. The section, 3.1.1 of the City Charter, currently states:
"All employees of the city shall either be registered voters in the State of Tennessee, or eligible to vote in the State of Tennessee, except that those employees currently employed and living outside the State of Tennessee shall be exempted from this provision as of January 18, 1990."
This section is the key language that needs to be changed. The proposed change is the following:
"All employees of the City shall be residents of the State of Tennessee. This Section 3.1.1 shall only apply to those employees paid entirely and directly from the general fund of the City. Those employees who were hired on or before January 18, 1990, and who have lived outside the State of Tennessee continuously since said date, shall be exempted from this Section 3.1.1."
Though some ex-cons qualify to have their rights restored, including their right to vote, not enough Tennesseans are taking advantage of this opportunity. As a result, Councilman Yusuf Hakeem championed this bill in an effort to, as he put it, give people a second chance and not destroy their lives for mistakes made in the past.
Hakeem is not a stranger to working with felons nor is he a stranger to the government. He had been a councilman from 1990 to 2006. He left only because Governor Phil Bredesen appointed him to the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. He returned to the council in 2013 and has remained since then.
Having these experiences, Hakeem knows that "people coming out of [prison], they need hope." At the same time, he is fully aware not every single job is open. Chattanooga Human Resources Director Todd Dockery pointed out that police officers, firefighters, and a few other positions will still be closed to felons. Furthermore, as Councilman Chris Anderson, the co-sponsor of this ordinance pointed out, there is nothing to prevent an interviewer asking about the conviction on a person’s record.
Directory Dockery makes clear, "If we are hiring an accountant for the finance department and they had a DUI felony conviction 15 years ago, that’s not going to affect the hiring decision. But if we find that an applicant for a finance position had a felony conviction for check fraud a year and a half ago, that is going to affect the hiring decision."
The new job application form will be in effect as of January 1, 2016. Since this ordinance cannot become law without approval by voters, City Attorney Wade Hinton believes that should the City Council vote to approve it again during the second-reading on December 15, this ordinance will be placed the August 4, 2016 ballot.