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Charles City ordinance would require landlords to keep log of residents' names

CHARLES CITY | A new ordinance proposed by a local anti-drug group in Charles City would require every resident in a rental property to disclose their name to landlords — which then could be disclosed to law enforcement upon request.

Supporters of the ordinance, including mayoral candidate Matt Lovik, say the change will reduce illegal drug activity in Charles City and make neighborhoods safer.

Opponents, however, feel the ordinance may violate constitutional rights of those living in rental housing.

Steve Diers, city administrator for Charles City, said the ordinance is still in "very early stages" and research still needs to be done to see if other communities have adopted similar proposals.

He declined to comment on whether he felt the ordinance violated tenants' rights, citing the fact the ordinance has not been discussed in any public meetings.

"Any time we have any proposal, we need to look at the legality, practicality and implementation," Diers told the Globe Gazette by phone Friday. "So until we have the research done on that, we really can't comment."

The ordinance was introduced by the SoFar group in Charles City. Charley Thomson, one of its members, said the group's mission to reduce local drug usage and provide help for those who are addicted.

Thomson said he has heard complaints about the new ordinance impacting tenants' constitutional rights, particularly those under the Fourth Amendment. As an attorney, however, he believes the new ordinance is simply assisting with local housing laws and helping reduce the amount of illegal drugs in town.

"The idea is not to take on everyone in any group," he told the Globe Gazette by phone Friday. "The idea is we these are commercial [rental] arrangements, some of which have been causing problems."

Thomson said he discussed the proposal with Heidi Nielsen, the executive director of Charles City's housing department.

Nielsen did not return a call or email for comment Friday afternoon.

Rita Bettis, the legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, said she would need to research the ordinance and similar cases more in-depth, but had preliminary concerns.

"Our concerns with crime free ordinances in general is that they are nothing more than housing discrimination dressed up as a crime-fighting tool," Bettis wrote in an email. "At the very least, this seems like an invasive overreach by local government that presumes that renters are by definition suspicious."

Thomson emphasized that the ordinance is a draft and wants the public to know that feedback is encouraged. 

"(SoFar) just had a meeting last night," he said Friday. "We welcome any comments ... we're all ears, we want input."

Thomson added that SoFar plans to hold a public forum on the issue between Thanksgiving and Christmas and hopes the proposed ordinance can be updated to what the public feels is just.

He urged anyone interested to contact him with questions, comments and concerns.

"We’re not out to mess with anyone's Constitutional rights," he said. "But we are very serious about doing what we can to protect the public health and public safety from a very real and very deadly threat."

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Mason City early voting sets record

MASON CITY | A record number of early voters have cast ballots in Cerro Gordo County this year, mostly from Mason City, according to Auditor Ken Kline.

As of 4 p.m. Friday, 1,426 had voted absentee, he said.

"The most absentee votes we have had was in 2013 when 1,385 votes were cast," said Kline.

The early voting total also surpasses the total voter turnout for Mason City in 2015 when 1,397 votes were cast, a turnout of 7.2 percent.

"I believe we are headed for an an overall voter turnout of 7,000-plus, which would be a strong turnout," said Kline.

This year's ballot in Mason City includes a contested mayor's race, two contested council races, one uncontested council election, a Park Board race and two public issues related to the River City Renaissance downtown redevelopment project.

In 2013, the most recent mayoral-election year, voter turnout was 7,097. The only other times in recent years in which the turnout topped 7,000 were in 2007 (7,181) and 1999 (7,424).

If Kline's estimates are accurate, this year's turnout will be 35 percent or higher.

Election day is Tuesday. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Mason City, Clear Lake and Ventura and from noon to 8 p.m. in all other county polling places.

Voters in Mason City can cast ballots in any one of 10 vote centers in Mason City and either of two centers in Clear Lake.

Special report looks at River City Renaissance project

A special report in today's Globe Gazette examines the issues and answers dozens of questions our readers have had regarding Mason City's River City Renaissance Project and two related issues that will be on the ballot Tuesday.

What does the plan include? How much will it cost? Who pays for what? What are the risks? Who are the main players? What are the unknowns?

These and many more questions are answered, accompanied by helpful graphics and photos in our report on pages A8 and A9.

Studies: 'Ban the box' may hurt applicants with criminal histories

Advocates for criminal justice reforms have sought laws that prevent an employer from asking, on job applications, whether an applicant has a criminal record.

So-called “ban the box” or “fair chance” laws are designed to prevent employers from discriminating against individuals who have committed a crime but completed their sentence. Such discrimination often disproportionately impacts minorities, especially blacks, studies have shown.

A pair of recent studies, however, suggest ban the box or fair chance laws may have the opposite impact and actually make it harder for minorities to get from an application to a job interview.

Iowa criminal justice reform advocates said they still think ban the box or fair chance laws can be helpful tools, and disputed the studies’ findings.

“Critics of ban the box suggest there are unintended consequences of the law, in that employers might engage in racial discrimination, hurting the very population the policies were implemented to help. This study however, finds no evidence of racial discrimination in the public sector context,” Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa and Nebraska chapters of the NAACP, said in an email interview with the bureau.

“While there is a long journey ahead to ensure equal hiring standards for all who have been through the criminal justice system, the evidence evokes true optimism about the social and economic possibilities for this population,” Andrews said.

One recent study of ex-offenders in Massachusetts found that regardless of race people with criminal records were less likely to get jobs after ban the box laws were implemented than before, according to a report for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan public policy and research organization.

The study, conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, found after a ban the box law was implemented in Massachusetts, the average employment rate of individuals with a criminal record declined by 2.6 percentage points when compared with the average employment rate of individuals without a criminal record.

“We find that contrary to the intended goal, the CORI Reform has a small negative effect on ex- offenders' employment that grows over time, with mixed effects on earnings and industry composition,” the study says.

Another recent study of private, for-profit employers in New York and New Jersey found after ban the box was implemented more white applicants got called back than black applicants, the Pew report said.

In that study, online job applications from fictitious men with distinctly white and black names were sent to employers before and after the application of ban the box laws. Before ban the box, white applicants received 7 percent more callbacks than similar black applicants; with ban the box in place, white applicants received 43 percent more callbacks than black applicants.

“We have two very good studies that show it’s really hurting young black men who don’t have college degrees and who struggle in the labor market for other reasons,” Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor at the University of Virginia who has studied ban the box laws and thinks they should be scrapped, said in the Pew report. “If this law is getting people interviewed for jobs they’re never going to get, that can become discouraging for job seekers and a waste of everyone’s time.”

Doleac also published her own paper that found young black and Latino men without a college degree were, respectively, 5 percent and 3 percent less likely to be employed after ban the box than they were before it, the Pew report says.

“Racial discrimination is a problem and pervasive in a lot of settings. I think these studies really show though that employers are perfectly happy to hire young black men when they can ask” about their criminal history, Doleac told Pew. “They seem to care more about a criminal record than race.”

Iowa advocates for criminal justice reform, however, said they question the studies’ findings and remain convinced ban the box and fair chance laws will help rehabilitated individuals with a criminal past find employment.

“It’s a big deal. It’s a matter of fairness,” said David Walker, a retired professor who taught in Drake University’s law school.

Walker, the regional NAACP and other advocates have pushed for a ban the box law in Iowa. In 2016 a bill was introduced in the Iowa Senate but failed to advance past the early stages of the legislative process.

Supporters of the bill said it would not prevent any employer from eventually looking into an applicant’s criminal history. It only would prevent employers from asking about criminal history on the initial job application.

“(The bill’s goal) was hoping that people would get to have a face-to-face interview to have a chance to meet the person, not just see the statistic,” said Russell Lovell, another retired Drake University law school professor.

A total of 29 states have ban the box laws at least for public employers; Iowa does not. Nine states, including Illinois and Minnesota, extend the laws to private employers, according to the National Employment Law Project. The New York-based organization publishes research on workers issues and advocates for policies that create jobs and expand access to work.

The NAACP disputed the methodology of the two East Coast studies that suggested ban the box and fair chance laws actually make it more difficult for individuals with a criminal record to get past the job application stage. Andrews pointed to another recent study that suggests those laws work as intended.

Conducted by an economics professor at Connecticut College, the study found ban the box laws for public employees increase by 5 percentage points the probability of employment for a public employee with a criminal record.

“Even if increased racial discrimination occurred after ban the box laws were implemented, this would underscore the need for better and more strictly enforced anti-discrimination laws,” Andrews said. “We know that racial discrimination in employment is persistent. Shouldn't this discussion about ban the box lead to a deeper commitment to addressing this issue.”