URBANA — As city officials in Champaign-Urbana look to clean up their laws on taxis and limousines, a rule about whether ex-convicts are allowed to drive vehicles for hire has city council members taking a second look.
City officials say they've had a boom in the number of vehicle-for-hire businesses that have opened in both cities during the past several years. With that boom come extra complaints — the vast majority of which come from owners bickering about their competitors.
As city administrators seek council approval to rewrite the ordinance in response to the changing business climate, a provision for which there is no proposed change — one that has been in effect for at least 15 years — has piqued Urbana City Council members' interest.
Some council members say it might be time remove a line that says felons have to wait four years after being released from prison before they can get a taxi license. This week, they asked for city administrators to bring them a report within the next six months on why that rule exists.
"It is a direct contradiction to the human rights ordinance of the city of Urbana," said Alderwoman Carol Ammons, D-Ward 3.
Champaign and Urbana share a city ordinance on vehicles for hire to make the licensing and enforcement process easier — any taxi, limousine or shuttle that is licensed in Champaign is automatically licensed in Urbana, and vice versa. They also have to follow identical rules in both cities regarding driver's licenses, labeling of vehicles and rates.
Administrators had proposed to tweak some of those rules on things like licensing and labeling, but they had not touched a rule that disqualifies anyone with a felony conviction or anyone who has been released from jail for a felony conviction within the past four years from getting a license to drive a taxi, limousine or any other vehicle for hire.
But it was that rule that caught the city council's attention this week.
Aaron Ammons was one of a few residents who spoke out about the ordinance this week.
Ammons, an ex-felon turned community activist and husband to Carol Ammons, said it is not just the policy on taxi cabs that needs to be addressed, but rather the larger issue of excluding people who he says have been released from jail and thus paid their debt to society.
"It needs to be a paradigm shift in that thought process, period," Aaron Ammons said.
Alderman Bill Brown, D-Ward 4, also said he would like to see that part of the ordinance changed. Like Carol Ammons, he said state laws do not prohibit ex-felons from holding driver's licenses, so there's no apparent reason why the city would.
"I don't think we want to be adding to that unless there's a justification," Brown said.
Alderman Eric Jakobsson said the question may be a little more complicated than some other council members made it seem. He said he has an open mind on removing the prohibition on recently released felons getting taxi licenses, but he wants any move the council makes to be based on "evidence and not an arbitrary formula."
"I think that the licensing procedure should look at the entire personal history in context," Jakobsson said. "I definitely believe that the conviction record is something that should be taken into account as one factor among multiple factors."
He said the ordinance, as written, is much too "simplistic." For one, it does not distinguish between violent and non-violent offenders.
"In some ways, I would be more concerned about repeated violent misdemeanors than I would be about a non-violent felony," Jakobsson said.
He said there are real public safety concerns — residents are concerned for their children and for themselves — but that ex-offenders should be given "every reasonable opportunity" to operate normally in society after they have done their time.
"It's not a simple question," Jakobsson said. "We have a really complicated question between public safety and civil rights."