Restaurant owner Anton Kotar wants to hire more felons
For Zach Lampley, a waiter at Nick and Jake’s near the Country Club Plaza, getting an employee liquor permit was one of those time-sucking but unavoidable tasks, like getting a driver’s license.
Lampley, 24, is one of about 10,000 other Kansas City restaurant workers who journey annually to the dreary municipal office off of Independence Avenue to pay a $39 fee and submit to a criminal background check for a city permit to serve alcoholic drinks. Anyone with a violent felony conviction (murder, rape, kidnapping, child molestation) is denied.
Lampley, who has been been through other screenings to become a substitute teacher and a retail manager, had no problem getting his card. But he sees the system as antiquated and unfair, especially for the those struggling to get a foothold in the workplace after incarceration.
“It just seems like they’re looking for reasons for people not to progress,” he said. “All it seems to add up to is that people who made mistakes in the past are still punished even after they’ve done their time.”
Critics of the 67-year-old liquor card system contend that it is now more than unfair — it is hypocritical.
Seven months ago, Kansas City Council voted to “ban the box” — shorthand for eliminating the question on employment forms that asks applicants about their criminal history.
The idea was to give ex-offenders a better chance to sell themselves to potential employers by deferring such questions until later in the hiring process.
But, because of the liquor cards, the box lives on in applications for employment in Kansas City’s bars and restaurants.
Owners, most of whom do their own background checks, have tried for years to get the system scrapped.
This time, they might succeed.
Mayor Pro Tem and mayoral candidate Scott Wagner, joined by a majority of the council — including two other contenders, Councilmen Jermaine Reed and Quinton Lucas — are sponsoring an ordinance to drop it.
Earlier this month, the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Advisory Group, made up of industry and community representatives, voted 5-2 in favor of Wagner’s ordinance.
The proposal will be taken up Wednesday by the council’s neighborhoods and public safety committee.
“The reality is that if we’re going to ban the box, making it easier for anyone in any other industry to have a conversation about getting a job, why can’t we allow people to have that same opportunity in the service industry?” Wagner asked.
“The hospitality industry has always been the industry of first opportunity,” said Jason Pryor, owner of Pizza 51 and past president of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association. “This is an opportunity for second chances as well.”
The existing law establishes a tiered system of eligibility for ex-offenders. While the most violent felons face a lifetime ban, those with armed robbery or aggravated assault convictions can apply five years after release. For those who sold drugs, there is a three-year exclusion.
All of this would be be eliminated if the ordinance passed.
Support for abolition of the cards goes beyond the industry. Other advocates see it as a racial justice issue.
Lora McDonald, executive director of the Metropolitan Organization for Racial and Economic Equality (MORE2), said it is up to the probation and parole system to determine who should and should not be working around alcohol.
“To us, it’s never made sense to make the lowest wage earners in a city pay $40 ... in order to work,” McDonald said.
Dwayne Williams is president and CEO of the Twelfth Street Heritage Development Corporation, which runs a “Prison-to-Workforce-Pipeline” that helps ex-offenders find work. He said the city allows ex-felons to wash dishes at a restaurant or bar, but keeps them from serving and hosting jobs that might lead to promotions into management and, perhaps ultimately, entrepreneurship.
“You’ve got grown men and women who are trying to take care of their families,” said Williams. “Who wants to be a dishwasher for the rest of their lives?”
Defenders of the permit system, most prominently former Councilman John Sharp and Jim Ready, the city’s director of regulated industries, contend that it provides an element of protection. They’re wary of bartenders slipping something into a drink or over-serving vulnerable customers who could be preyed upon later.
“I think when you go to a licensed establishment in Kansas City, you have a right to feel safe,” said Sharp, who successfully sponsored the 2015 legislation easing restrictions on some ex-felons. He added that the lifetime ban applies only to a small minority of felons, who he described “the worst of the worst.”
He likened doing away with the system altogether to allowing a pedophile to work in a day care center.
Ready’s office collects about $350,000 a year in revenue from the liquor permit fees — about half of it goes to an outside firm to conduct the background investigations. He said the checks add an important layer of safety.
“The fact that the industry acts like there’s not a public safety issue is absurd,” he said. “It continues to be a public safety issue.”
His evidence? Two sexual assaults involving restaurant employees, one in 2009 and the other in 2015. The most recent involved the owner of Downtown Pizza at 15th Street and Grand Boulevard. Dennis Skeen pled guilty to attempted rape and committed suicide in jail before he was sentenced.
Skeen, who had no prior felonies, held a city liquor card.
“We can’t predict when crime is going to happen,” Ready said. “All we can do is make sure that the dangerous offenders that we know of don’t get the opportunity.”
Ready and Sharp are supported by the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA). Kate Heinen, the group’s volunteer coordinator, cautioned that alcohol remains “the number one drug used in drug-facilitated sexual assault.”
Owners point out that most other jurisdictions don’t use the permit-and-background check system.
“Chicago and St. Louis don’t have liquor cards, so I don’t know why our problems are any greater than Kansas City,” Westport bar owner Bill Nigro told the advisory group.
Although Kansas prohibits felons of any kind from serving alcohol, the state’s localities have no system of licensing or background checks like Kansas City.
“I just don’t see the crime that’s happening over in Kansas and not Missouri,” said Chris Lewellen, owner of The Well in Waldo and other bar and restaurants.
The upcoming committee hearings might produce more opposition to abandoning the employee permits. MOCSA and several south Kansas City groups are expected to speak out.
As is Ready.
“You can’t trust the industry to police itself,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”