A unanimous Buena Park City Council voted Tuesday to create a background check policy for commissioners working with children, making it one of only a few Orange County cities to do any kind of a background investigation of its commission members.

The council vote came amid “some concern” that commissioners were not subject to vetting given their “proximity” to kids, according to a staff report.

“Because we do fingerprinting with our city volunteers who work with children, some felt that commissioners should be subject to that as well,” said Assistant City Manager Aaron France.

The policy, approved at the council’s July 24 meeting, will apply only to two of the city’s five commissions, Cultural and Fine Arts and Parks and Recreation. France said those commissioners are the most likely to work with kids on youth-focused projects.

France said city staff now has to write either a resolution or ordinance that will likely require those commissioners to go through a Live Scan background check that is administered by the California Department of Justice and already is required of city employees, volunteers and interns.

Live Scan is the inkless process of digitally scanning a fingerprint, according to the California Attorney General’s website. The print is forwarded electronically, along with a physical description of the person to the Department of Justice which will run the print against a fingerprint database. If the person’s print doesn’t yield a RAP sheet, the process usually takes 48 to 72 hours. 

According to California law, cities can access felonies and misdemeanors through a Live Scan background check, but only if they’re convictions or active prosecutions.

“If something comes up, it can take a little longer and we’ll receive the results and we’ll make a determination of whether or not that individual is fit to be on a commission,” France said.

As to what exactly the background check could yield that would disqualify someone from being appointed, France said “Obviously, any inappropriate contact with a child is a red flag. That includes child abuse or child endangerment. But there are a lot of variables like the nature of the crime and how long ago it took place that we would have to dig a little deeper with what we find.”

Currently, the only other cities in the county that subject commissioners to vetting are Lake Forest, Stanton, Anaheim and Placentia. They all use the Live Scan to perform the background checks on appointed commissioners. As of Wednesday night, the City of Irvine did not respond to inquiries about any background-checking policy.

Anaheim, however, only background-checks members of its citizen Police Review Board “because they can hear about confidential public safety information as part of their role,” said Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster. No one on any of Anaheim’s 14 other boards and commissions are vetted.

Santa Ana stopped background-checking city commissioners “at least seven or eight years ago, as an administrative decision,” said Santa Ana City Clerk Maria Huizar in a Wednesday phone interview.

“We were asked internally to cut costs, because to run a background check takes staff,” said Huizar, who added the background checks did not include fingerprinting and were “not full blown.”  

The Buena Park council looked at a commissioner-vetting policy in place in Corona in Riverside County as a reference, which authorizes the city clerk to seek criminal background information on a commissioner through any law enforcement agency, including the Department of Justice. The policy does not include fingerprinting.

Buena Park Councilwoman Beth Swift said in a Tuesday telephone interview she requested the issue be brought to the council in an attempt to address members of all seven of the city’s commissions. The staff report noted a “concern about knowing the moral character of commissioners, who represent the city.”

Swift said a resident had approached her about one commissioner who had a history of “multiple infractions with the law.”

“I thought ‘good grief; this is not what we want in a commissioner,’” Swift said without naming him or his committee or saying what kind of infractions were alleged.

City Manager James Vanderpool and Assistant City Manager Aaron France also refused to name the commissioner who appears to have prompted the council’s discussion.

“I think it’s important that we are represented by people of good ethics and integrity. I would hope that our commissioners share our core values,” Swift said at the meeting.

While Mayor Virginia Vaughn and Councilman Fred Smith said they wholly supported background checks for commissioners who are likely to work with children, they voiced concern about applying that policy to all commissioners.

“I think we’re opening a Pandora’s box. Where can you draw the line?” asked Vaughn, who said she was concerned about what kind of crimes or records could disqualify a commissioner from being appointed.

Smith said during the meeting he thought such a policy for all commissioners would be “asking a little bit much.”

“We have a hard time now getting quality commissioners. To require them to give a background check, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to come out. Maybe 25 years ago or so someone made a mistake,” said Smith. “Most of the commissioners that serve for us are people that we personally know.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. You can contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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