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Mayor eyes new residency campaign

By David Skolnick, Marc Kovac, Mark Kovac

Thursday, June 11, 2009

By David Skolnick and Marc Kovac

Despite the ruling, the falling housing market could prevent city workers from shuffling to the suburbs.

COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court couldn’t have made a “worse ruling” than deciding that cities can’t require their employees to live within their corporate limits, said Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams.

“It is a terrible day in the state of Ohio,” Williams said. “I couldn’t disagree with this decision more.”

In a 5-2 ruling Wednesday, the justices found that a state law forbidding cities from imposing residency restrictions for workers overrides local ordinances and is not in violation of cities’ home-rule authority. The ruling also covers counties, townships and school districts.

In the Mahoning Valley, Youngstown and Warren required city employees to live in the city. Statewide, about 130 cities and villages have residency requirements for their workers as a condition of employment.

The cities of Lima and Akron filed suit after state lawmakers passed legislation that took effect May 1, 2006, stating that “no political subdivision shall require any of its employees, as a condition of employment, to reside in any specific area of the state.”

A Youngstown charter amendment approved by about 80 percent of voters has required employees hired by the city since 1986 to live in the city.

The state law and the court decision go against the will of the people who voted across Ohio to require public workers to live in the community in which they work, Williams said.

Williams said he hopes an organization forms to get a referendum on the ballot allowing Ohioans to amend the state constitution giving municipalities the ability to impose residency requirements. He added that he’d campaign in favor of such a proposal.

“So many other things have been on the ballot to amend the constitution,” Williams said, pointing to gambling initiatives and the Defense of Marriage Act. “Perhaps this is where this goes.”

Youngstown Law Director Iris Torres Guglucello said the court “made a bad decision.”

A study done for the city a year ago stated that more than 200 city workers would move out of Youngstown within a year if not bound by the residency rule. Of the city’s 850 employees, about 600 live in Youngstown. All of those who live outside Youngstown were hired before 1986.

But the declining housing and financial markets would “make it hard to leave the city,” Guglucello said.

When asked how many city employees he thought would move out of Youngstown, Williams said, “That remains to be seen. Only time will tell.”

Edward Colon, president of the 116-member police patrol officers union, is pleased with the ruling but doesn’t expect it to have a great impact.

“I do not perceive a mass exodus,” he said. “With the housing market, people aren’t going to leave the city. It will be just a small percentage of people who move. I don’t intend to leave, and I don’t think a lot of people will leave the city.”

Cicero Davis, president of the union that represents about 95 secretarial and clerical employees who work for the city, said he was “somewhat surprised” by the court’s decision because it went against “a vote of the people.”

The union was neutral on the city’s residency requirement, Davis said, with some for it and some against it.

Warren Mayor Michael J. O’Brien said a constitutional amendment should be considered.

“We should let the public decide,” he said. “City employees receive their paychecks from hard-working taxpayers. I’m disappointed by the decision.”

Warren City Council passed an ordinance in 1991 requiring those working for the city to live in the city.

Of the city’s 425 workers, 321 live in Warren.

In Wednesday’s majority decision, written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the state’s high court ruled that the Ohio Constitution gives authority to the General Assembly to provide “for the comfort, health, safety and general welfare of all [employees], and no other provision of the constitution shall impair or limit this power.”

As such, “By allowing city employees more freedom of choice of residency, [the state law] provides for the employees’ comfort and general welfare. Requiring employees to live in a specific city ... conflicts with the prohibition [in Ohio Revised Code] against such residency restrictions.”

Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor, Terrence O’Donnell and Robert R. Cupp concurred.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger dissented.

Justice Moyer noted, “Because [Wednesday’s] decision once again undercuts the system of dual sovereignty established in the Ohio Constitution and supported by earlier decisions of this court, I respectfully dissent from the decision and the opinion of the majority.”

“The majority has opened the door for the General Assembly to use this section — which trumps all other constitutional provisions — in a conceivably limitless variety of situations to eviscerate municipal home rule,” Justice Lanzinger wrote.