Residency and Ratification: Desirable or Disruptive?

The Takoma Park City Council is discussing creating residency requirements for the city manager and department heads and instituting council ratification of the city manager’s department-head hiring choices. After much thought, I oppose the changes as proposed. The goals are worthy — promoting community engagement and adding council oversight for strategic hires — but the approaches on the table are needlessly disruptive and will narrow our pool of applicants and delay our hiring a new city manager.

There are other ways to reach our engagement/oversight goals without the high disruption cost. (Those goals are of secondary importance in any case: they would not enhance the economy, efficiency, or effectiveness of city service delivery.) Let’s pursue alternative approaches and return focus to our city’s primary staffing goal, hiring the most qualified candidate for each vacant position, from the city manager on down, without delaying our city-manager search.

City Manager Residency

Proposed change #1 is to require the city manager to live in the city or perhaps nearby, within 10 miles. Former City Manager Barb Matthews lived in Reston; her husband was required to reside there as a condition of his job. I think Barb was an excellent Takoma Park city manager, although I’m not thrilled about the environmental and energy impact of her long car commute. Barb is subject to a residency requirement in Rockville, where she will start as city manager on October 1.

According to Takoma Park’s city attorney, the addition of a residency requirement for the city manager may require a city-charter amendment. Amendment would take months, involving a public hearing, notice periods, and council vote. (See charter Article 5, Section 502.) Yet the council can already require that the city manager reside in the city, without a charter change. The council can make city residency a city-manager search and selection criterion without undertaking a prolonged, multi-step process of writing a requirement into the city charter. If the council hires a candidate who agrees to reside here but then fails to relocate, the council can fire that person given the breach of trust.

Proposed compromise #1: I would happily agree to make city-manager residency a criterion in the city’s current city-manager search. I would’t make it a requirement: I don’t want to preclude our looking at highly competent candidates who have entanglements such as kids in the Fairfax County school system or an aged parent who lives on the next block in Columbia or simply deep existing ties to her or his current community. But I would give a preference, say 5 points out of 100 for a candidate who commits to live in Takoma Park, diminishing by 1 point for each 2 miles distance from the city. Council colleagues: How about it?

Department Head Residency

Change #2 is to require city department heads — the police chief, the deputy mayor, the directors of housing and community development, public works, and recreation, and others — to reside in Takoma Park or perhaps nearby, within 10 miles of the city.

I question whether this requirement would lead to more-engaged senior management, the primary goal of the proposed rule. We expect professionalism and engagement from every city employee, from Rec Department part timers up to the city manager, and skills and experience should remain the primary hiring criteria. But given city hiring in the last several years — a number of department heads live in the region, more than 10 miles distant from Takoma Park, who I strongly suspect would not have taken their jobs if forced to relocate to Takoma Park — I have little doubt that a residency requirement would lessen the size and likely the quality of applicant pools. Further, a residency requirement restricts the city manager’s hiring powers and therefore would complicate our current city-manager search.

(By the way, would we also end the Police Department’s vehicle take-home program, which former Chief Ron Ricucci instituted in order to boost officer retention? It’s an incentive that’s most attractive to officers who don’t live nearby.)

I favor, instead, incentives to promote staff’s living here, and as a further suggested compromise, I would support making residency for department heads a secondary selection criterion rather than a requirement. That is, the city manager, as she has to date, will seek candidates with demonstrated skills, relevant work experience, and educational and professional accomplishment, who are strong cultural fits for Takoma Park, and will short-list the best of them. The city manager will then weigh residency in her hiring decision, with a preference for the top candidates who commit to residing in (or near) the city.

By the way, creating a waiveable requirement would not make sense: We would state a residency requirement in a job search, choose to make an offer to a candidate who knows of that requirement, then give a waiver as part of negotiations? Can you envision the city’s doing that? And who would do it, the city manager or the council, by resolution? If the council, because the city charter disallows council “interference” in staff hiring, you’d have a form of ratification requirement. This point leads us to —

Council Ratification of Department Head Hires

Proposed change #3: The council is considering giving itself power to ratify or reject the city manager’s proposed department-head hires. The council would vote yes-or-no vote on the city manager’s preferred candidate. I like the idea, actually — it’s in line with the current requirement that the council approve city contracts of $10,000 or more, while it, like the contract-approval requirement, does not permit any other council role in hiring or procurement — yet ratification’s disruption cost is simply too high.

Again, we are currently seeking to hire a new city manager. We’re hoping to have a position description out SOON in order to interview candidates in early December, but we have significant uncertainty about the powers of the person we seek to hire. I suggest that the council table ratification discussions until June, 2013. At that time, a new city manager, and the city’s FY 2014 budget, will be in place, and actually, the lead-in to the November 2013 city elections will be a great time for public discussion of this change.

What You Can Do

Whether you favor the proposed hiring-rule changes or my compromise alternatives, or if you disfavor touching anything, please make your views known to your council representative.

I represent Ward 1 in the city council. I will say that, to this point, NOT ONE of my constituents has expressed support for the councilmember-initiated changes. I have heard, however, from folks who oppose them. Please let me know what you think.

If you are a member of the City Manager Selection Committee, you and your committee colleagues would do the council a great service if you would weigh in on a residency requirement for the CM:

  • Do you (and the city residents and stakeholders you poll) see residency as necessary?
  • If you do, should it be handled via a requirement or via a search & selection criterion? If the latter, what weight, among the various criteria, should it be given?


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