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Adrian Walker

Residency requirement is a joke

William Gross, the Boston Police Department’s superintendent in chief, spoke to recruits before they ran from Hyde Park to Roxbury in June.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

William Gross, the Boston Police Department’s superintendent in chief, spoke to recruits before they ran from Hyde Park to Roxbury in June.

There are some people in town who think that Police Commissioner Billy Evans should fire Willie Gross for living outside the city, no matter how well he does his job — which by all accounts is very well.

Gross is the Boston Police Department’s superintendent-in-chief, the second in command. As reported Sunday by the Globe’s Andrew Ryan, he lives in Milton, not Boston. But his boss, the police commissioner, said he wasn’t aware that the city’s residency law applied to his command staff, adding that there have been commanders who didn’t live in the city for as long as he has been in the department.

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It turns out that Gross is just one of dozens — maybe more — of city employees running afoul of the city’s residency law. Certainly, many of them have chosen to ignore it. Some of them are apparently unclear about whether it applies to them. They should be forgiven, since the law is confusing and riddled with exceptions for many employees.

All of this has created a bind for Mayor Marty Walsh. He is politically obliged to talk tough on residency, even as he talks about the need to reform (read: loosen) it. The mayor has made clear that he isn’t going to fire Willie Gross for living in Milton, nor should he.

I’ve expressed my feelings on residency before: I think it’s a joke. Promoted in the 1970s as a means of keeping middle-class white employees in the city, it’s now an anachronism. But don’t try telling that to our politicians.

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When Walsh went to the City Council seeking the authority to grant residency exemptions to a handful of employees, he was quickly slapped down. Instead, the council grudgingly agreed only to extend the time new employees have to move into the city, from six months to one year. Actually, the law on that is disputed, too.

Residency has a strong sentimental appeal, as I was reminded during a recent conversation with a city councilor. I was told that city employees should have to live in the city as a show of “commitment,” and that the people who draw paychecks from the city should experience city life in all its glory and frustration.

I disagree. I think the city should hire and promote people who can do their jobs well, and that moving from Dedham to Hyde Park, as the current law compels, isn’t going to make someone a bit better at, say, running the Parks Department. But it’s been clear for years that the City Council sees no political gain in addressing the issue.

Councilors will tell you that there was a furious backlash to Walsh’s idea of granting residency exemptions. Maybe so, but understand that to a city councilor a dozen calls constitutes a groundswell.

While councilors posture and mayors swear fealty to a law they don’t really believe in, residency has been dismantled piecemeal, with almost no opposition at all. Mayor Thomas M. Menino used it as a bargaining chip — easing up on residency requirements for police and fire unions in exchange for contract concessions, most notably, expanded drug testing — and nobody gave a damn. It’s the most selectively sacrosanct, hypocrisy-riddled policy since Prohibition.

The worst part is that the knee-jerk posturing shuts down the debate we really should be having: talking about how to attract and keep the best talent in City Hall, instead of worrying about hunting down employees who’ve slipped out of town. Walsh said the residency law should be enforced, which I can only hope he doesn’t mean. A man who wants to exempt his closest aides from residency obviously isn’t committed to it as a broader concept.

Menino had the right idea: He appointed a Residency Compliance Commission, and then ignored it. If Walsh doesn’t have the political will or capital to jettison residency, there’s plenty of precedent for forgetting to enforce it.

Willie Gross is a great cop. Who cares where he lives?

Related coverage:

Boston’s residency rule routinely flouted

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