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Change to Wauwatosa residency requirement shot down

Dec. 19, 2012

In the long and tortured history of the city's residency requirements, the issue may never have been debated more thoroughly and more passionately than it was at Tuesday's Common Council meeting.

In the end, a proposal from the Employee Relations Committee to drop residency requirements for all positions but three - the public works director, and the police and fire chiefs - was defeated on a 10-to-6 vote.

The issue of residency requirements for city employees has come and gone in council chambers several times over the years. The current ordinance requires city employees to be residents, but waivers have been granted so frequently that, for some, the ordinance seemed to have little meaning.

In the words of Alderman Dennis McBride, an attorney, "The one thing a lawyer despises is a rule that's not a rule."

Mixed feelings and arguments

Having a consistent policy that could be enforced was a strong motivation among many for a new ordinance. But the reasons for votes for and against the proposal varied. Some thought it was too lax and voted against it. Some thought it was too strict and grudgingly supported it.

Alderwoman Jill Organ said the argument against residency requirements - that they restricted the pool of talented candidates for open positions - was belied by the quality of the present staff members who live in the city.

"I take pride in this fact," she said, further arguing that there was value in "the people running our city living amongst us and experiencing the city they manage."

Alderman Craig Wilson acknowledged Organ's argument, but said, "The bigger concern is the ordinance as it stands today is really a patchwork."

Unwavering waivers

He said he was unaware of any waiver request that wasn't granted, and asked, "Why require it?" He wanted no residency requirements at all, but would have accepted the proposal presented.

Alderwoman Cheryl Berdan agreed with Wilson. She said when the city offers a job to an applicant, it first says the applicant must move to the city, but if the applicant says he or she won't, the city says it can grant a waiver.

"It doesn't make us sound very professional," she said.

As jobs become more technical and require higher training, the pool of applicants should be as wide as possible. And, she added, "You don't have to live here to understand the culture of Wauwatosa."

Council role vs. staff role

Alderman Bobby Pantuso said, referring to council members, " We represent the city."

"As long as we're not legislating tonight that we can be aldermen and live in Elm Grove … I don't care where (employees) live."

Alderman Peter Donegan agreed with those who would have no requirements, and said the council should leave the hiring to the professionals on staff.

"We want the best people we can get, and we should stay out of it."

Inconsistent, but sound idea

Aldermen Brian Ewerdt and Jason Wilke said they liked the current system, as inconsistent as it might be, because it did give the city flexibility. Wilke called city residency a "preferred requirement." Alderman Greg Walz-Chojnacki said "I guess I generally agree that the system is not broken."

Alderman John Dubinski, who served as a Wauwatosa police officer for 30 years, said that when he was hired the city required him to live within 10 miles of the police station - it didn't have to be in Wauwatosa. Over the years the radius was lengthened, and then finally it was removed altogether. One of his colleagues moved to Johnson Creek, 40 miles away.

"Do we want a city forestry director living in Johnson Creek when a serious windstorm comes up?"

He said pride should also be a factor.

Emergency staffing

Human Resources Director Beth Aldana pointed out a second clause in the proposal, which said that when the city hires an employee, it "may consider residency and response time of candidates or employees if operational needs for the position warrant such consideration" - among other things, making residency a tiebreaker among otherwise equal candidates.

Aldana said the city's emergency response team consisted of the department heads, and some second-in-commands.

Alderman Joel Tilleson said that, for him, the proposal "is too narrow." All the department heads should be required to live in the city, he said.

In the final vote, Aldermen McBride, James Moldenhauer, Organ, Walz-Chojnacki, Tilleson, Ewerdt, Wilke, Donald Birschel, Dubinski, and Tim Hanson voted against the proposal.

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