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Employee Residency Battle Ignites Anew in Springfield…

UPDATED 10:26AM: For grammar & clarity.

They stood up on residency...but will it matter? (WMassP&I)

They stood up on residency…but will it matter? (WMassP&I)

Touching off a fresh battle in a politically fraught issue, the Springfield City Council voted to strengthen the city’s employee residency ordinance Monday night. As expected, if surprisingly quickly, Mayor Domenic Sarno vetoed the measure the next day and sent it back to the body as he had done with a similar measure in 2013.

The Council breezed through much of its agenda Monday night allowing councilors to train their fire on residency. The mandate for city employees to live in the city has been a hot button issue for years and Council President Michael Fenton has been leading the charge to strengthen employee residency rules. He developed the bill limiting residency waivers that passed Monday 10-1, a veto-proof majority.

However, the 2013 ordinance also had a veto-proof majority until it didn’t. Some councilors flipped their votes—in both directions—defeating the override 8-4 and 8-5 on two separate attempts. Nine affirmative votes are required to override a mayoral veto.

Current ordinance requires all city employees hired or promoted after 1995 to be residents of the city. The largest blocs of unionized employees such as police and firefighters have exemptions in their union contracts and many educational employees like teachers are exempt under state law.

Some past members and staff of the Control Board in 2009. (via Springfield City Hall)

The Control Board introduced the concept of residency waivers in 2009. Sarno, then a member of the Board, opposed allowing waivers that year. Recent changes altered the ordinance to allow a year grace period for non-resident hires to move into the city.

The ordinance vetoed Tuesday would have eliminated waivers for department heads and their deputies. Prospective employees below that level could still secure waivers, but the city would need to repost any job that lacked interested and qualified Springfield applicants to allow residents another chance. This process, the ordinance’s supporters have claimed, adds transparency, too.

When Sarno vetoed the measure in 2013, which contained nearly identical language to Monday’s ordinance, he cited a legal opinion from City Solicitor Ed Pikula. Pikula argued the ordinance violated the charter by stepping on the mayor’s appointment powers. The opinion also claimed limiting future waivers, given the exemptions other employees have, would invite litigation.

As WMassP&I reported in 2013, the constitutional risks Pikula cited related not to city employment, but government contractors’ employees. The US Supreme Court has blessed municipal employee residency requirements. Regarding the charter, the city solicitor said the Council could not detract from the mayor’s appointing authority.

Mayor Domenic Sarno flanked by Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, left, and City Solicitor Ed Pikula. (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno flanked by Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, left, and City Solicitor Ed Pikula. (WMassP&I)

Responding in 2013 to an email from WMassP&I noting the case he cited from Boston was not on point, Pikula indicated it showed councilors could not infringe upon mayoral appointing power. While courts did reject the Boston City Council’s regulation of mayoral hiring, they also distinguished regulation of city department employees from the mayor’s immediate staff.

The charter does vest the mayor with near-exclusive power over whom he can appoint, but it also grants the Council the prerogative to shape city departments including job qualifications. In fact, Sarno himself sought Council approval of such a change when he appointed Joseph Conant Fire Commissioner.

Then-Deputy Chief Jerrold Prendergast was the only applicant who met the educational requirements for Fire Commissioner. However, Prendergast’s role in civil service complaints made him controversial. Conant, who lacked the college degree required but had spent a career in the department, was chosen instead. At Sarno’s behest, the Council revised the ordinance to allow Conant’s appointment.

State Fire Marshall Coan Delegates Authority to Joseph Conant in 2013 (WMassP&I)

State Fire Marshall Coan Delegates Authority to Joseph Conant in 2013 (WMassP&I)

Some councilors legitimately support residency for city employees. As a policy it might encourage the reinvest oc those middle to upper-class salaries back into the city. Others, like at-large Councilor Timothy Rooke feel the city should field the best qualified individuals and not turn them away because moving into Springfield would be a deal-breaker.

Either way, the issue’s serial appearances have cast a shadow, too. Because residency is broadly popular among voters, it is subject to demagoguery. Some councilors have launched ad hominem attacks on city bureaucrats, misrepresented residency in other cities, and/or proposed outlandish solutions.

In 2013, then-Council President Jimmy Ferrera opposed Fenton’s ordinance, but then proposed a bill that would cancel existing waivers. Dubbed the “fire everybody” bill by City Hall denizens, it faced clearer constitutional issues because it might violate some workers implied contract rights.

Past councilors have launched personal, rhetorical attacks against Human Resources/Labor Relations Director William Mahoney. Himself a Ludlow resident—with a waiver blessed by the Control Board—Mahoney has developed a better relationship with councilors after recent labor pacts brought more workers under the authority of the residency ordinance.

William Mahoney. (via Still of Public Access)

William Mahoney. (via Still of Public Access)

But Monday he faced fresh censure over the waiver process. Though the complaints were nothing like the personal attacks Mahoney encountered in the past, at-large Councilor Bud Williams grilled him about temporary and permanent waivers, Boston’s residency ordinance and the interplay between residency and collective bargaining contracts.

Dismissing the notion of interminable “temporary waivers,” Mahoney said such waivers were issued as a recordkeeping tool for employees that were using the one-year grace period to move into the city after becoming beginning city employment. “We may issue a temporary waiver,” he said. “They all have a year to get into Springfield.”

During an interchange that included Williams and later at-large councilor Justin Hurst, Mahoney explained why non-residents were often promoted to top posts in the fire and police departments (chiefs and deputy chiefs are not unionized and thus not exempt from the residency ordinance).

“One of the things that complicates it is that the pool of candidates that we’re dealing with all live outside or can live outside the city because of collective bargaining,” he said.

In the end the ordinance passed almost exactly as it did in 2013 save for an amendment offered by Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos that protected the privacy of those seeking a waiver.

At-large councilor Timothy Rooke was the dissent in the 10-1 vote. Councilors Ken Shea and Kateri Walsh, both absent Monday, had consistently voted in favor of the ordinance in 2013.

The 2014-2015 couldn't keep its veto-proof majority together. Can this year's Council? (WMassP&I)

The 2014-2015 Council couldn’t maintain its veto-proof majority together. Can this 2016’s Council keep it together? (WMassP&I)

Three of the five votes that sustained the veto in 2013—Ferrera, Zaida Luna and Clodo Concepcion—have been replaced by councilors who voted for the ordinance Monday. Councilor Thomas Ashe had voted for the 2013 ordinance when it initially passed, but voted twice to sustain Sarno’s veto.

The mayor would need to apply considerable pressure this time to get the five votes he needs to sustain the veto this time.

Even then it could be a pyrrhic victory for residency supporters. The mayor, following the advice of Solicitor Pikula, may ignore the ordinance, claiming his charter powers have been violated. Advocates of residency would then need to seek redress in superior court.