Baltimore city worker residency requirement bill would do more harm than good

We sympathize completely with the intent behind the Baltimore City Council’s legislation to require top supervisors in Baltimore’s government to live in the city. Such a rule would force top officials to tangibly demonstrate their commitment to Baltimore. It would put them in contact with the people they serve in their neighborhoods, at the grocery store, at their kids’ school. And it would make sure they experience first-hand how well or poorly city agencies serve the public. If top supervisors get five-figure water bills or their trash doesn’t get picked up or they call 911 and get put on hold, you can bet somebody’s going to have to answer for it.

In practice, though, we think it will cause somewhat more problems than it solves, and we believe Mayor Catherine Pugh should veto it.

In the context of municipal residency requirements, this one is quite modest. Philadelphia, for example, has long required virtually all municipal employees to live within the city limits — in fact, it was the test case for a 1970s Supreme Court decision that upheld such rules as constitutional. Many other cities require police officers and fire fighters to live within their borders, and others have similar requirements for teachers. The bill that passed the council Monday night only affects about 150 people — top aides in the mayor’s office and high-level departmental supervisors. Department heads are already required to live in the city. Consequently, this legislation wouldn’t do much to foster one of the oft-stated goals of such regulations, which is to boost a city’s tax base and economy. And since the city charter requires department heads to live here, the people who are responsible for setting policy and executing it are already invested in Baltimore.

Mayor Pugh’s administration has raised legal and practical objections to the bill. Among other things, the Law Department questioned the requirement that affected employees not only live in the city but also register to vote here. The department notes that such a stricture exceeds the authority granted in state law for rules like this one; we would add that it appears questionable based on the case law related to similar statutes. There is a rational basis for requiring workers to live in the city, but it’s hard to argue that it’s particularly the city’s business whether someone is registered to vote.

The city’s Department of Human Resources, meanwhile, questioned the rule’s effect on recruitment. It’s unfortunate that, among the points it made, the department noted the relative lack of college-educated adults in the city compared to the surrounding counties, as it reinforces the notion that Baltimore is a second-rate, unattractive place to live. But the recruitment issue is central to the debate over such rules in every city, and it’s not just a question of whether a qualified applicant for one of these positions would want to live where he or she works. People often have good reasons for living where they do and not wanting to move — a spouse’s job, child care, difficulty selling a house and so on. The legislation would allow a new hire to pledge to move into the city within six months before facing automatic termination. That’s pretty draconian. Philadelphia at least allows workers to apply for hardship exemptions.

We need mayors to be able to recruit the best available talent to run city agencies, and we shouldn’t erect any more barriers than necessary. That said, we would love to see Mayor Pugh embrace the concept. Even if a law on the subject might be a bad idea, there’s nothing wrong with her badgering every city worker she comes across, from her top deputies on down, to make Baltimore their home.

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