BLOOMINGTON — When Bloomington resident Sonny Garcia left the race for a Bloomington City Council seat in February because a felony conviction left him ineligible, he called it a “systematic injustice that limits civic participation for those who have been caught up in the justice system.”
Garcia now is campaigning for the creation of a Bloomington Public Safety and Community Relations Board, which would be called on to evaluate public complaints about the police department and to build relationships between the police and residents. If the council approves the commission July 10 as expected, Garcia would like a chance for people with felony records to sit on the seven-member board.
“I am not 100 percent sure I would even accept a seat because I have two jobs and time constraints may prevent me from doing that,” he said. “But this isn’t about me. There are others in my shoes who are in similar positions and are very capable of contributing.”
While final language for the ordinance still is being written, Mayor Tari Renner said Tuesday that six of the nine aldermen indicated at Monday's council work session they would favor allowing people to serve if their felony convictions are more than seven years old.
Garcia, a community activist especially involved in west-side issues, would be eligible, for example, because his felony conviction for driving on a revoked license is 15 years old.
Most of the language is based on ordinances in other Illinois cities with similar boards such as Springfield, Peoria and Urbana. They had different approaches to determining membership and whether people with felony convictions can serve.
During Monday's committee-of-the-whole meeting, Garcia pleaded with city officials to ease the criminal history restrictions in membership eligibility.
“You have the power to hold true to your value and make space for everyone to do good for our community,” he said.
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At that meeting, Renner suggested adding a provision that board members have no “violent” felony convictions in their past. Some aldermen said that might not be necessary because membership qualifications already include a reputation for fairness, integrity, impartiality and a sense of public service.
“Like with any board or commission, appointees would be vetted and approved by the council,” said Ward 1 Alderman Jamie Mathy during Monday's discussion.
In Urbana, no person with a criminal felony conviction or plea is eligible to serve on the Civilian Police Review Board, whose members must “possess a reputation for fairness, integrity and a sense of public service,” according to its city code. City employees and people currently or formerly affiliated with federal, state, or local law enforcement cannot be appointed.
Bloomington officials have said that no police officers would sit on the city's board.
Springfield has a seven-member Police Community Review Commission, but the city’s code does not prohibit those with a felony conviction from serving on it.
“It is not spelled out specifically,” said Springfield Deputy Mayor Bonnie Drew, adding members are chosen by the mayor and approved by the City Council. “What we have done is we’ve tried to reach out to a cross-section of our community."
Peoria's ordinance for its 17-member Advisory Committee on Police-Community Relations "does not disallow anyone from serving on it because of a past felony conviction,” said Assistant City Manager Chris Setti. But members, who are drawn from across the city and groups such as the school district and the NAACP, are appointed or removed for cause by the mayor with confirmation by the City Council, he added.
Champaign is in the process of drafting an ordinance to create a police-review subcommittee of the city's human relations commission.