Jenny Lee Smith

Texas park operators received an earful of warnings Monday (April 24) about written policies they need to have in place to comply with the latest state and federal regulations as they screen potential park guests.

During the first full day of the Spring Meeting of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO), park operators learned that while it is OK to use criminal background checks in the guest screening process, they must also have written policies in place that describe how convictions for specific types of conduct will prevent the park from allowing them to be a guest.

These policies are needed to comply with the latest regulations contained in the Fair Housing Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“You cannot exclude guests based on arrests,” said Jenny Lee Smith, an attorney with Cobb & Counsel who serves as TACO’s legal counsel. “Arrests are not evidence that anyone did anything wrong.”

Similarly, Smith said, “You cannot have a blanket prohibition on all people with criminal backgrounds. HUD says that will be a violation.”

Smith, according to an announcement from TACO, said nearly one-third of the U.S. population has a criminal record of some kind, with African Americans and Hispanics having arrest and incarceration rates that are disproportionate to their respective shares of the population.

As a result, she said, policies or practices that fail to take into account the nature and severity of an individual’s conviction may not satisfy the latest regulatory requirements and could make the park operator vulnerable to a costly discrimination lawsuit.

Smith added that the Texas Housing Act mirrors the federal statutes and warned park operators that if they receive a letter from the Civil Rights Division of the Texas Workforce Commission indicating that they are investigating a complaint, the park operator should contact her or another attorney they trust. “You don’t want to go through that process alone,” she said.

However, she said, park operators can protect themselves and still use criminal background checks appropriately by having policies in place that carefully describe the types of convictions that will prevent individuals from being admitted as park guests.

“You can prohibit guests who have been convicted of illegal manufacture or distribution of controlled substances. You don’t want meth cookers in your park cooking and distributing. But your policy needs to be refined and targeted for the purpose of protecting people and property,” she said.

Brian Schaeffer

Brian Schaeffer, TACO’s executive director and CEO, said another useful example would be policies that exclude applicants who have had DUI convictions during the past few years, since people with a history of drunken driving could pose a threat to both people and property at the park.

On other legal topics, Smith said it’s important for park operators to have signage at the entrance to their properties if they want to have legal grounds for preventing people from entering their parks carrying open or concealed firearms. Such notices must be posted in English and Spanish and guests should be required to sign off on such notifications when they check in.

Smith also warned park operators that they cannot legally turn off a guests’ utilities if they have failed to pay their overall site fees. Their utilities can be shut off only if they have specifically failed to pay for their utility fees.

Park operators who attended Monday’s sessions received handouts that provided details on the latest regulations involving the Fair Housing Law as well as open-carry laws. The handouts will soon be available to TACO members on www.tacomembers.com.

Today is the final day of TACO’s annual Spring Meeting and will feature several educational sessions, including presentations by Larry Brownfield of Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA)  regarding the latest consumer trends in the hospitality industry, while representatives from Austin-based TengoInternet will discuss the latest trends in Wi-Fi, including findings from TengoInternet’s “State of the Industry” report.

Representatives from the Texas Railroad Commission are also on hand to discuss the latest rule changes for propane distribution as well as continuing-education opportunities.

Schaeffer and Jeff Crider, TACO’s publicist — and, separately, Woodall’s Campground Management senior editor — will also conduct a marketing and public relations class and provide tips to help park operators promote their businesses.

The event is being held at the Lake Conroe KOA.