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Adrian Walker

Time to move on from residency rule

Marty Walsh has a hiring problem, and it has turned out to be the city limits.

Specifically, some of the people the new mayor has hired for key jobs, or would dearly love to hire, don’t live in the city and don’t necessarily want to.

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So Walsh has taken the politically risky step of begging the City Council to pass an ordinance that would allow him to bypass the city’s residency requirement for a limited number of positions. He says he would like to waive residency in “three or four cases, if that” — though I’m pretty sure the final number will be higher, presuming the council goes along with his change.

Residency has been a problem from the time it went into effect in 1977. None of the mayors who have governed under it was really committed to it, and many of the employees who fell under it didn’t care for it, either.

Its enforcement has been a game of cat-and-mouse. Some employees found creative ways around it. Powerful unions eventually bargained partial exemptions. A few people were fired for violating it.

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For a while, there was an obligatory Residency Commission that was supposed to ferret out scofflaws. Mayor Thomas M. Menino appointed the panel and then promptly ignored it.

The whole thing was a travesty, and Menino knew it. One of the reasons he was happy to create a private, residency-
exempt entity to take control of Boston City Hospital was because his choice to run it, the great Elaine Ullian, didn’t live in the city and wasn’t moving in. So he publicly preached the gospel of residency, while privately undermining it.

Residency didn’t begin as a fraud. When it first gained traction in the ’70s, the argument for it was powerful. In the midst of busing, important city workers were fleeing the city in droves. Police officers, firefighters, and teachers all wanted out.

At the time, residency was a way of promoting stability and preserving a middle class.

But over time, all of that has changed. The biggest unions negotiated sunset clauses: Yes, their members had to live in the city at the start of their career, but they could eventually move out. The number of workers subject to the residency provision has steadily declined.

Meanwhile, the city itself has seen a renaissance. The middle class has returned with a vengeance. The city is now the place to live, as housing prices attest. The issues residency was invented to address are largely obsolete now. There is no reason to believe that easing or eliminating residency would produce any significant flight of city workers.

Walsh insisted Tuesday that he believes in residency in principle, that he wants the power to make only a few exceptions. I believe that approach is fundamentally wrong-headed. Exempting a handful of people from a law their peers have to follow is terrible policy. Deciding who does or doesn’t have to move will be a nightmare.

I wish Walsh would instead summon the courage to say this: “We don’t need a residency requirement anymore. I think the people who run the city should live in the city, and I have made that clear. But there is no good reason the new arts commissioner absolutely cannot live in Milton.”

The truth is, people are good at their jobs because they are smart and talented and committed. People with those qualities will succeed, even if they live in Chelsea. People who lack those qualities won’t be a bit better because they live in Hyde Park.

It simply doesn’t matter, and it’s too bad that our politics can’t catch up to that reality.

The good news is, Boston isn’t a city people have to be forced to live in anymore. Maybe residency contributed to that. But the residency rule has served its purpose, and what’s needed now isn’t a few exemptions. It’s time to give residency the dignified burial it has earned.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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