Wheeling poised to end background checks for business owners
Wheeling officials are expected to scrap an unusual ordinance that requires all new business owners be fingerprinted for criminal-background checks.
Village board members will vote tonight on removing the requirement, which has been in place for nearly a decade, amid questions of whether the ordinance is effective and legal.
The policy got extra attention when a longtime business owner complained the requirement infringed upon his constitutional rights.
"It, to me, was like a rights violation," said Bruce Van Meter, owner of Van Meter Mailing. "It's wrong, and it's not productive."
When Van Meter moved his business several blocks to Seton Court from Wheeling Road a couple of years ago, the village required him to refile for a new business license -- and submit fingerprints for a background check to be conducted with the Illinois State Police.
Village trustees are now siding with Van Meter and have reached a unanimous consensus to abolish the requirement.
Village Manager Jon Sfondilis said he does not believe the requirement infringes upon constitutional rights but said the ordinance is onerous for businesses.
Among nearly 20 communities surveyed in the Northwest suburbs, Wheeling is alone in requiring background checks for all new business licenses, Sfondilis said.
The village board implemented the ordinance in 2008, after a resident complained about being cheated by a business owner with a criminal record. The rule requires new business owners to pay for background checks, including fingerprinting, and allows the village to deny licenses if the owner has been convicted of a felony or "crime of moral turpitude" within the past five years.
The village processes about 60 new business licenses annually and has never denied a business owner on the basis of the background check, Sfondilis said.
"I think the intent is also important," he said, referring to what led to initial adoption of the requirement. "If it happened once, it could happen again, and we don't want our residents to be harmed."
But the village agrees the ordinance is ineffective. For example, the exact definition of a "crime of moral turpitude" is unclear, and business owners with criminal histories could ask someone else to undergo the background check.
"This is just a bad policy," Van Meter said. "If you think about it, somebody could move into town, send a Boy Scout over to get a background check, and then have a bunch of undesirables working in a backroom."
Under the proposed change, owners of businesses such as liquor stores, pawnshops, massage parlors and day care centers would still be subject to background checks. The ordinance would no longer require businesses moving within the village to acquire a new business license.
During a village board meeting two weeks ago, trustees indicated broad support for the proposal.
"I think it's about time we did this," Trustee Ken Brady said. "We always talk about being business-friendly. I think this is a big step in the right direction."