Mayor Martin J. Walsh proposed changes Wednesday that he said would significantly strengthen the requirement that city employees live in Boston, a law that for years has been openly flouted, unevenly applied, and weakly enforced.
Walsh adopted the recommendations of a City Council-led commission to force all new top municipal officials to live in Boston regardless of how long they have worked for the city. The changes would also create a waiver system for difficult-to-fill positions that demand special skills, increase penalties for scofflaws, and add more investigators for stepped-up enforcement.
But the proposal includes a substantial caveat: A number of Walsh’s hires who live in the suburbs would be exempt because of a grandfather clause. Current city law compels officials to live in Boston, but the requirement has been selectively ignored by Walsh and the administration of his predecessor, Thomas M. Menino.
One section of the proposal would create an exemption for a single employee: Milton resident Michael Dennehy, the commissioner of Public Works who for two years remained an interim department head.
Another provision would have a significant impact on the Boston Police Department. Much of the police leadership lives in the suburbs and would be exempt, including the second-in-command, Superintendent-in-Chief William G. Gross of Milton. All future appointees to the command staff, however, would be required to move to Boston.
At a press conference, Walsh said he was “grandfathering in a whole host of city employees” because it would be “too complicated” to force them to move to the city. Walsh said he would not jeopardize public safety by removing half of the Police Department’s top brass because of the residency rule.
The mayor was adamant the proposal would strengthen a residency policy that had been in disarray. Almost all of the city’s collective bargaining contracts allow union members to move out of the city after 10 years of service. For the first time it would be clear, Walsh said, that longtime employees will be required to move back to Boston to serve as department heads or Cabinet chiefs.
“We’re making it consistent across the board,” Walsh said.
A civic leader and activist who served on the commission objected strenuously to the proposal, saying it would weaken the law and continue the long tradition of special treatment for political favorites.
“It makes it a joke. It’s ridiculous,” said the activist, Eileen Boyle, of the pro-residency group Save Our City. “If I was a dedicated city worker who lived in the city and was working in City Hall, I would be scratching my head. It’s far worse than it was before.”
Boyle pointed to Dennehy as proof the proposal would perpetuate favoritism. Last year, the city adopted a year grace period to give Dennehy and other Walsh officials a chance to move back to the city. Dennehy worked his way through the ranks and had moved to Milton by the time Walsh appointed him commissioner.
“We changed the rules for him so he can have a year to move back in,” Boyle said. “He has not moved back in. Now, the mayor is changing the rules for him again. Why are we doing this for a select group of people?”
The commission chair, City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty, defended the process and said there was consensus supporting the recommendations. Boyle did not object to a final draft circulated to all commission members via e-mail, Flaherty said.
Payroll records at Boston Public Schools show several members of the superintendent’s leadership team live outside Boston, including Sam DePina of Stoughton, administrator of operations; Kim Rice of Manchester-by-the-Sea, assistant superintendent of operations; and Richard Weir of Newburyport, director of communications.
Walsh’s measure was introduced Wednesday in the City Council, which will hold a public hearing at a later date.
The Globe reported in 2014 that 13 of the 22 top leaders in Boston’s Police Department live outside the city in apparent violation of the city’s residency requirement. The paper found at least 50 municipal employees flouting the requirement and living in the suburbs, including managers in the city’s technology division and the Inspectional Services Department and high-ranking school officials.
Walsh said the findings brought serious “concerns to light” and pledged his administration would investigate individual cases and fix the policy.
The residency requirement did force one of Walsh’s top aides, Joseph Rull, to leave City Hall after a year because he lived with his family in Norwell.
Last January, Walsh launched an effort to overhaul the policy and created the seven-member commission. Members met more than a dozen times and issued recommendations late last month.
“The goal here was to simplify and standardize the residency policy and make it consistent and equitable and transparent across city government,” Flaherty said.
The residency rule dates to 1976, when Boston was hemorrhaging middle-class families. The concept was simple — all city employees must live in Boston. But over the past four decades, that simple idea has been overtaken by a contradictory patchwork of ordinances, state laws, and labor contracts.
The Globe found in 2014 the ordinance had become so porous that only 43 percent of Boston’s nearly 18,000 employees were required to live in the city. Still, even if they’re not required to live in the city, most did: According to the payroll, roughly two-thirds of municipal workers called Boston home.Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.