Thursday, January 27, 2011

Residency for mayor, but not employees?

CHICO: Easing residency for public safety?
I find it ironic that mayoral hopeful Gery Chico this week came out for easing the residency requirements for city workers, at a time when an overly strict interpretation of “the law” when it comes to mayoral candidates could work to his benefit.

There are those people who believe that Chico, the one-time head of the Public Schools board, the City Colleges of Chicago and the Park District, would become the new front-runner, should Rahm Emanuel be unsuccessful in convincing the Illinois Supreme Court to keep his name on the ballot for the Feb. 22 municipal elections.

AFTER ALL, SAY the legal critics, Emanuel can’t run for mayor because he has NOT been a Chicago resident for a long-enough period of time – in accordance with that strict reading of relevant law.

There are those who think the people pushing this view are Chico’s backers (including Alderman Edward Burke), if not quite Chico himself.

So we have a case where overly-strict residency requirements are good for Chico if they bump off his most serious Election Day opponent. Yet he’s going around getting the endorsement of the International Association of Firefighters local that represents the Chicago Fire Department employees.

The way he’s doing that is by telling them this week he’d ease the residency requirement. I’d say that the move would also get Chico the endorsement of the Chicago Police chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police – except for the fact that the cop union has already endorsed him! But to keep the cops from feeling neglected, he made pledges Wednesday to put 2,000 more officers on the streets by the end (if elected) of his four-year term.

NOW I DO see the one major difference. “Mayor” is an elected position. We don’t pick our police officers and firefighters, or their leaders, at the voting booth. So I’m not quite calling the Chico campaign hypocritical when it comes to the concept of residency and government.

But at a time when political observers watching this particular election cycle are engaging in debates over what, exactly, does Illinois law have to say about residential status for an elected official, the whole concept of demanding proper residency for a city official has risen to a new level of attention.
EMANUEL: Easing his residency?

So it seems odd that at least one of those candidates for mayor is choosing this moment in time to get a little bit lax with the residency requirements for other city personnel.

Now I realize that residency has been a long-festering issue, particularly when it comes to employees of the agencies that are supposed to ensure the public safety of city residents.

WE MAKE JOKES about those “cop enclaves” in neighborhoods such as Jefferson Park on the Northwest Side or Mount Greenwood on the Southwest Side – the latter of which bears so much resemblance to neighboring Alsip that one can’t easily tell where city ends and suburb begins. (For the record, I have two uncles who were Chicago police – one who lived in Mount Greenwood, just three blocks from the city limits, and another who lived out near Midway Airport, although upon his retirement, he found himself a literal country estate in Arkansas to escape what he had come to see as the urban zoo).

I’m sure there are many police officers and firefighters who would have no qualms about moving those few blocks out further into a suburban town – if not for the residency requirement that has been in place for decades.

There are those people who make arguments in defense of residency requirements by claiming they are needed to keep the “middle class” living in the city. Without them, they say, Chicago would become a home address for very wealthy people who live in or near downtown, and the rest of the city would become for the very poor.

Actually, I think it is the quality of the public school system that is more important in that regard. A lot of people, if they don’t already live here, make a point of moving to the city in early adulthood. It is the belief that the local public schools are too low quality (and the parochial or other private schools too expensive) that causes too many people to leave – creating a case where roughly two-thirds of the Chicago-area’s population lives in a suburb, rather than the city itself.

MY REASON FOR thinking the residency requirement has merit is because it would be nice to have the public safety employees on hand.

I know there are suburban towns that are forced to ease up on residency requirements – or else they wouldn’t be able to hire and keep qualified public safety employees. The mode in those places seems to be requiring their workers to live within something like a 10-mile radius of the home town, or requiring them to live in town for a few years, then easing up on residency once they become veteran employees.

I’d like to think Chicago has enough to offer that it doesn’t have to ease up on residency in order to find qualified workers. People who talk about easing the requirement seem, to me, to be surrendering on a certain level. If Chico really does believe that residency for those city workers isn’t all that important, then perhaps he should make some sort of statement telling the people who are eager to boot Emanuel from the ballot based on residency technicalities to ease up.

Fat chance that will ever happen!


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