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Dispute Over Municipal Residency Exemptions Could End Up In Court

City Hall in Springfield, Ma

Should municipal employees be legally required to live in the city or town that pays their salary?  The long-simmering debate over local residency requirements in Massachusetts has flared recently in several cities, including Springfield.

 Three city councilors in Springfield claim six deputy or district chiefs in the Springfield Fire Department are in violation of the city’s residency ordinance. Their public demand for the fire officials to move into the city immediately, or give up their jobs, brought a sharp rebuke from Mayor Domenic Sarno.

"  You know, they are never asked the question' Where do you live?' when they are in those dangerous situations," said Sarno.  " A lot of this are contractual that date back to the 198o's."

 The debate over whether the leadership of Springfield’s fire department should live in the city is part of a bigger dispute between the city council and the mayor over a residency law that has been unevenly enforced for years.

The city council on March 21st voted 10-1 to restrict the mayor from granting any waivers to the residency requirement for newly hired or promoted city department heads and deputy directors. City Council President Mike Fenton said any request for a waiver, either temporary or permanent, would trigger a re-posting of the job opening.

"  This a blanket ban," declared Fenton.  " If you are a department head,or deputy department head from this day forward you can not live outside the city. It is a blanket ban."

Fenton said the council is attempting to put teeth into a residency law that has been on the books for decades but has been inconsistently enforced.

"  The process we currently have is flawed because waivers are granted for uncertain periods of time. Some of them are written. Some are verbal.  Some date back years. Some date to last week," said Fenton.

Sarno vetoed the ordinance the day after the council approved it.  He vetoed a nearly identical ordinance three years ago and the 13-member council fell one short of the nine votes needed to override the earlier veto. 

If the council should succeed in overriding the latest veto, the flap over the residency exemptions could end up in court.  Sarno says the city solicitor has issued an opinion that the council is illegally attempting to limit the mayor’s authority.

" They are trying to usurp what is in the ( city) charter," Sarno said of the council.

Sarno said there is a lot to consider when hiring someone besides where the person lives.

" Everything equal, I have always said, I will pick a Springfield resident. But I am running a corporation here and I have to be accountable to the taxpayers and the residents to hire the best individual available." said Sarno.

State law hardly sets a level field when it comes to residency requirements.  The law exempts school teachers from local residency laws.   Public safety officials can be required to live within 10 miles of the community where they work.

The union representing professional firefighters in Massachusetts has lobbied for the state legislature to approve a blanket exemption to local residency laws.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh earlier this year signed a new ordinance requiring all top municipal officials to live in Boston, but exempts current employees.

Officials in Lawrence are struggling to write a residency law for municipal employees after voters endorsed the idea in a non-binding referendum.      

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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