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June 1, 2014

Vote seen as double-edged sword

Lawrence council to consider residency requirement before Tuesday vote

LAWRENCE – Requiring municipal employees to live where they work builds a local middle class, stabilizes neighborhoods, fortifies hometown businesses and makes the public workforce more like the people it serves, advocates of residency requirements say.

Forcing municipal workers to live locally undermines the century-old Civil Service tenet that government workers should be hired only on merit, drives away qualified job-seekers, disrupts families and restricts interstate commerce, opponents say.

The U.S. Supreme court tossed out the argument that residency requirements violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution 35 years ago, when it also ruled that Americans have no constitutional right to be employed by a town or city while living elsewhere.

But the larger debate about whether cities and towns help or hurt themselves when they require their employees to live locally is playing out in Lawrence for the second time in a decade, as the City Council considers reinstating a residency requirement that voters repealed in 2001.

The 2001 vote was close: 51 percent of the 9,190 people who voted supported repeal. But Tuesday’s vote by the City Council on whether to re-enact the law voters defeated is shaping up to be more lopsided: six of the council’s nine members say they support the residency bill, giving it the super-majority it needs to pass and then override any veto by Mayor Daniel Rivera, who has declined to take a public position on the issue.

The history of residency requirements in the U.S. suggests that the shift in sentiment in Lawrence may be driven by economics and ethnicity. Nationwide, municipalities typically impose residency requirements to revive a sagging economy or to match the workforce to local racial or ethnic demographics, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty.

“Cities characterized by high unemployment, a declining tax base and an aging physical plant are somewhat more likely than other cities to have and enforce residency laws,” Wisconsin Political Science Professor Peter Eisinger concluded in the study. He added that residency requirements often are “a clear effort to affect the racial distribution of public sector jobs.”

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