In Our View: Work Here? Live Here

Local residency requirement is a tough but fair one for city department heads

Published:

 

Should municipal leaders be required to live in or near the city they serve? As we editorialized six years ago, this is a tough question, and there’s no easy answer. Compelling arguments are presented on both sides of the debate.But the debate has resumed again in 2012, as Andrea Damewood reported in a Columbian story on Sunday. Vancouver’s city charter requires its city manager to live within the city limits. City Manager Eric Holmes, who lives in Felida, was granted a 2-year waiver of that requirement by the city council when he was hired in November 2010.

The requirement is slightly more lenient for six department heads in the city, who must live within Vancouver city limits or in the city’s urban growth area. Three of those leaders (Fire Chief Fred Molina, Public Works Director Brian Carlson, and City Attorney Ted Gathe) live within the city limits, and three (Assistant City Manager David Mercier, Chief Financial Officer Lloyd Tyler and Police Chief Cliff Cook) live in Vancouver’s urban growth area.

As we said in 2006, the residency requirement is good, but just barely. It would be great to hire the best city leaders and not worry about where they live. But in that situation, there would arise the question of just how far away the city department heads should be allowed to live. What if a public servant chose to live hundreds of miles away and commute to work? Or even farther away? Best to avoid that dilemma by imposing a local residency requirement.

Such a policy is common among cities. Damewood quoted Lara Cunningham, who works for a Portland headhunting firm that specializes in top public positions and who said: “In most cases, just the city manager is required to live within city limits -- more often than not, they’re asked by (city) charter to live there.”

One argument for this policy is that it obligates a city leader to show an investment in that city. And regarding city leaders who live outside city limits but in the urban growth area, at least they contribute to the city by frequently shopping and dining in the city and contributing to sales tax revenue. Also, public safety leaders such as fire and police chiefs are kept close for emergency response reasons.

There’s also the rational point that elected officials are required to live in the jurisdictions they serve, so why not top city officials as well?

These are arguments based on logic, and there are strong arguments based on emotion. It would be great to have a “family-friendly” policy that allows city leaders to live close to schools and churches they prefer, inside or outside the city. And it would be more inviting to job applicants if they did not face the local residency requirement.

In the end, logic trumps emotion. But that doesn’t keep tough calls from cropping up. In 2006, Vancouver lost a good police chief when Brian Martinek had to resign so he could return to Portland, where his family previously lived, to allow his children to attend a Catholic high school there. “It’s a matter of personal preference for us in terms of our faith and our belief in the private school system we are in,” Martinek said at the time.

Enforcing the policy six years ago was a tough call for the city council; it was a split decision. But as we noted then, “there are compelling reasons to require that top officials live among the people they govern and the infrastructure they are responsible for maintaining.”

The policy remains a challenge for Holmes. His home has lost 17 percent of its value since he took the job. City councilors should at least consider extending the waiver another year.