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Public employees should live where they serve

Marion City Council wasn’t wrong April 30 when it voted to abolish a policy requiring certain appointed officials to live close to the city, but they weren’t strictly right either. The question of requiring public employees to live where they serve is a question about priorities, rather than a question of right or wrong.

It is a balancing act between hiring the people with the best qualifications for the job and providing an extra level of connection to the people they serve — being in the same boat as the community members affected by decisions.

Even without a requirement that employees live in the city (or county or school district), governing boards can encourage employees to live locally and trust that in their searches for the best and brightest employees, they’ll find people who want to be part of the community.

As I was surveying policies in and around Marion County, USD 398 Interim Superintendent Demitry Evancho’s word choice while speaking about the benefits of public servants living in a community hit the nail on the head — accountability. When public servants live where they work, they’re affected by their decisions the same way everyone else is — if their recommendations lead to a tax increase or higher water or electric bills, they’ll feel the pain, too.

There is also the accountability of being among the population served — seeing the people affected by decisions at the grocery store and at church. There are people who abuse this kind of access to public officials; whether someone is a school principal, county department head, or city meter reader, they don’t deserve to be harassed everywhere and at all times about every little problem, but just seeing public officials “around” provides opportunities for conversation about issues.

And if you’re hiring the best and brightest, wouldn’t you want them to be part of your community full-time, not just 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday? This is a sore spot right now, because Marion is losing an active member of the business community and community at-large, as well as a school board member, because Keith Collett’s new public service job requires he move to Dickinson County at the same time Marion is abolishing those requirements.

It feels like saying, “We don’t think we can find highly qualified employees who want to work AND live here.” I object to any public official who thinks a city, county, or school district is good enough to accept a paycheck from, but not good enough to make their home.

My preference is for cities to have some residency requirement for all employees — either within or near the city — and for counties and school districts to require administrators and department heads live in the area served. In all cases, I think there is room for a waiver process; if a highly qualified candidate has a good reason commuting to work, the council, commission, or board should listen. But the initial expectation should be that public employees live where they work.

— ADAM STEWART

Last modified May 10, 2012

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