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Analysis: Once Totaled, Residency Ordinance Firing on (Most) Cylinders…

If you worked here, you’d be home already… (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—On December 3, 1990, amid disputes over the bargaining process, a grim City Council voted 8-0 to approve a contract awarded after “interest arbitration” that ended city cops’ obligation to live in Springfield. The move effectively killed what was left of the residency ordinance as many other city employees were already exempt. Three years before, an arbitrator had ruled firefighters’ contract language did not require they comply.

But earlier this month, the Council approved something very different. They ratified a contract that subjects new firefighters to the ordinance for ten years following their start date. Firefighters are the first public safety bargaining unit to have operative residency contract language in decades. While the path forward is bumpy, this profoundly alters an issue that has convulsed Springfield politics for decades.

This matter remains controversial. It still is a populist solution that feeds on the region’s strident provincialism.

But favoring city residents for employment can provide a hedge against inequality. The city’s many poorer residents get fairer shakes at jobs, many of which pay well enough to encourage upward mobility.

A Policy in Decline

Then-mayor Mary Hurley vetoed repeals of residency, but an arbitration-awarded police contract tied her hands on the issue. (still via Spfld Public Access/YouTube Thomas Devine channel)

Controversy shadowed the 1990 contract. Though two of its four years had no raises, the other two did. City officials said they were unaffordable. The arbitration award came amid a fiscal crisis that had enveloped Springfield the year before. Residency, which councilors had repealed before then-Mayor Mary Hurley blocked them, was simply not a priority.

Residency had been in retreat. In addition to the ruling waiving firefighters’ compliance, a law exempted teachers from residency rules statewide. Springfield councilors would eventually gut residency, only to revive it in 1995 under a system developed by then-Councilor William Boyle. Boyle’s setup largely stands today, but it went  unimplemented for years.

Reversing this trend has been difficult. Not surprisingly, this issue is caked in politics, slowing progress further. It has spilled into the courts, too, where a 10-citizen suit argues district fire chiefs are already subject to the ordinance.

The City Council has rejected teh district chiefs’ pact thrice.
(WMassP&I)

Councilors twice rejected a contract in which the district chiefs agreed to be subject to the ordinance prospectively. It was approved June 5, but opponents obtained a second vote last Monday, which Councilor Timothy Allen missed. The measure failed 6-6. Opponents want the current chiefs to move into the city or be fired.

The chiefs’ contract may not be dead yet, but revelations of some district chiefs’ ugly social media postings have put the matter on ice.

The same group of residency hardliners tried to upend the new firefighters’ contract. They claimed their old contract also included residency compliance. This was untrue due to the 1987 arbitration ruling.

Before that, the Council proffered futile and sometimes ridiculous solutions. In 2013, then-councilor Jimmy Ferrera’s “fire everyone” bill derailed a more reasonable attempt to tighten residency waivers.

Rhetoric has not helped either. Several councilors harp on cities like Boston and Hartford residency efforts. However, Boston’s residency travails have been anything but smooth and Hartford is not within the jurisdiction of Massachusetts collective bargaining law.

Love’s Labor Residency Regained

Nevertheless, slowly but surely the city has worked prospective residency compliance into its labor contracts. City labor negotiators, led by HR/Labor Relations Director William Mahoney, could cajole unions to accept it. But when the city and public safety unions hit impasse, a state interest arbitration panel, which can impose a deal barring Council rejection, would usually clip residency. Thus, two of the largest bargaining units—excluding teachers who remain exempt—could continue to sidestep the ordinance.

Springfield Fire Dept. HQ on Worthington Street. (WMassP&I)

As a practical matter, labor unions probably do not care for residency. Telling their members where to live seems antithetical to empowering workers. It also stratifies union membership—more senior, nonresident members are grandfathered—which creates tension. Still unions have shown good faith to bargain on the matter.

The contract between the city and the International Association of Firefighters, Local 648, Springfield firefighters’ local, upends interest arbitration as an obstacle. Public safety unions can no longer bank on an arbitration panel siding with them over residency because there is now precedent for putting compliance in public safety unions’ contracts.

Springfield patrolmen, represented by the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Local 364, were thought to be nearing a residency deal too. If that’s true, then the firefighter pact probably changes little. If not, then patrolmen seriously look to it as a model rather than risk losing at interest arbitration.

Separation of Glowers

Mayor Domenic Sarno at last Monday’s budget vote. (WMassP&I)

Outside labor relations, the firefighter pact could transform the politics of residency, too. Like many issues, distrust between the administration and the Council on residency has run deep. Poor enforcement is part to blame, but the suspicion has several facets.

Sarno has not helped by declaring the Council impotent when it wants change residency rules. For example, when councilors sought to tighten residency waivers, the mayor thundered—backed by threadbare legal reasoning—the Council was encroaching on his powers.

These episodes proved farcical when councilors called overrode his veto. His bluff called, the mayor proceeded to enforce the new rules.

For all the cloak and dagger within 36 Court Street, the mayor’s stated support for the ordinance has not been hot air. By law, he is the city’s representative for labor negotiations and he and Mahoney, have been pursuing residency. Councilors have credited his follow through.

Sarno declined to renew Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant’s contract when he refused to terminate a deputy chief who did not move to Springfield within a year of appointment. Under civil service law, only Conant could remove the deputy. For ignoring city ordinances, Sarno probably could have gone further. Still, it was a clear gesture in support of residency.

Residency As Applied

Enforcement remains the next front. Yet, as City Solicitor Ed Pikula correctly told the Council recently, enforcement is devilishly tricky. Where Pearl Street and Springfield’s Bravest are concerned, the city must follow civil service processes before canning a cop or firefighter for anything. A process exists for other unionized city employees, too, but it is less Byzantine.

Labor Director William Mahoney. (via Still of Public Access)

Councilors also clamor for enforcement staff and appointments to the residency compliance commission former Councilor Boyle’s ordinance created. At-large councilor Bud Williams even hinted that police should check up on employees’ residency earlier this month. Mahoney, while nonplussed by Williams’s suggestion, told councilors he and his staff have a working group that ensures compliance.

A full-time residency staffer is probably not a budget reality, though. Countless other commissions go without staff support. Some, like the Responsible Employer Ordinance Committee, are also on the Council’s wish list for a compliance officer.

Then there is the definition of compliance. Noncompliant employees have used family addresses or rental property in Springfield to feign compliance. While violators should be exposed, the city must start on getting all employees subject to the ordinance to report valid city addresses.

It should also be equitable. By 1990, a common complaint was that it was only enforced against cops. That was wrong.

Councilors may grumble about enforcement, but residency supporters must recognize they already won the war. The debate over residency has not ended, but its most ardent supporters should start thinking critically about making the city more livable overall.

Residency, for all its virtues, ultimately rests on a form of provincialism, a miasma that bedevils Western Mass generally and Greater Springfield specifically. Recognizing this philosophical drawback need not compel opposition to the policy, just appreciation that it is no panacea for Springfield’s ills.