Wednesday, January 29, 2014
When Mayor Bill Peduto announced his executive team shortly after the November election, he boasted about its diversity -- and about the fact that he had reached beyond city limits to attract top-tier talent. He even joked that the hires would help him fulfill a goal of attracting 20,000 new residents to the city. But thanks to an increasingly contentious residency requirement and Peduto's foes on council, a few chickens may have came home to roost this morning as well. Questions about residency arose when two of Peduto's appointees, innovation/performance officer Debra Lam and city solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge, came before Pittsburgh City Council seeking confirmation.
Both women moved in from outside the city -- Lam from Ross Township, and Sanchez Ridge from Upper St. Clair. But while Lam told council that she and her husband had both moved Downtown, Sanchez Ridge's circumstances were more complicated.
While Sanchez Ridge herself has bought a condo in Shadyside, she acknowledged that her husband and three children still reside in the prosperous South Hills suburb. Their daughter grew up in the district and is a senior in high school, she explained: "to remove [her] now, in the middle of the school year, is an issue."
Debate over the residency requirement, long a festering issue, has become increasingly heated, especially for city police, who have been pulling out the stops to have it lifted in arbitration. But the requirement is hugely popular with the taxpayers who cover employee salaries: A November referendum on the requirement passed by a four-to-one margin.
Sanchez Ridge noted that while the city code is explicit on requiring employees to live in the city, it's silent on the obligations of relatives. The condo, she said, is "where I go every night when I go to sleep."
Sanchez Ridge's living arrangements were sharply questioned Councilor Darlene Harris, though Harris said it was "nothing personal." Harris noted that "rumors go around about police, firefighters, city employees" trying to skirt the residency requirement -- including cases where spouses and children lived outside the city "so that they don't have to send their children to Pittsburgh Public Schools."
"It bothers me when people have a problem with the school district," added Harris, a former Pittsburgh Public School board member.
Harris asked what Sanchez Ridge's family planned to do once her eldest child finished high school. "We haven't made that decision yet," Sanchez Ridge replied. (When City Council President Bruce Kraus later said he understood that the family was "transitioning into living in the city," however, Sanchez Ridge agreed that was true.)
Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith expressed her own residency concerns. She griped that within her own district "We've had a lot of issues" with city employees owning property without living on it or maintaining it, worsening local blight problems. She noted that the Office of Municipal Investigations -- which has jurisdiction over residency questions and other employee behavior -- would report directly to the Law Department. "How can you assure us that you'll be able to oversee this and set an example?"
"I have no problems ethically or legally overseeing OMI, because I am doing nothing wrong," Sanchez Ridge answered.
Councilor Ricky Burgess, like Harris an outspoken critic of the Peduto administration, was especially pointed in his criticism. Burgess wrote the legislation putting the requirement referendum on the November ballot, and today said, "This is ... specifically the situation that I wrote the legislation to avoid." Police officers, he contended, had been fired for similar behavior.
(UPDATE: Attorney Bryan Campbell, who represents the Fraternal Order of Police and who half-jokingly calls himself "the world's greatest expert on the residency requirement," says that an officer would likely not be fired for living in the circumstances that Sanchez Ridge described. While it's true that "officers do get fired for this," he says, that tends to be in cases where officers spend no time at all at a purported address. "Officers have had spouses and children outside the city," he says. OMI will investigate by checking things like utility bills, an officer's voting address, and whether neighbors can attest to the officer's occupancy. "Officers have been successful in defeating [residency challenges] by providing that kind of proof," he says. (Perhaps notably, Campbell was unaware of a case in which residency was determined by whether the residence in question had a "homestead exemption" -- a tax break reserved for a primary residence. A check of county records suggests the Ridges' USC home has such an exemption.)
As he did when discussing the issue last year, Burgess said his efforts were intended to ensure that children of city workers would mix -- both in school and outside of it -- with children from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds. While he conceded that Sanchez Ridge may be "technically" right to say residency doesn't apply to family members, "[Y]ou're going to be the chief legal officer in the city. I don't think that's good enough. ... Our solicitor ... can't just be inside the law. They have to be above reproach."
"I guess I have to ask the administration to withdraw your nomination," Burgess added, saying he would do so in a letter this afternoon.
Despite Burgess' objections, Sanchez Ridge's nomination seems unlikely to be derailed. City Council President Bruce Kraus and other administration allies praised her, and Corey O'Connor, a potential swing vote, expressed concerns about the whole line of inquiry. "I think we're going down a slippery slope here," he said. "I think we're getting into individuals' personal situation, and I want to avoid that." He added that perhaps the requirement could be clarified -- and that Sanchez Ridge could help.
Kail Smith, despite her concerns about oversight, also expressed misgivings about the tenor of the conversation, and what she implied was a sexist double standard. When male appointees come to the table, she said, "nobody seems to wonder what's happening with their children and their homes. ... As a woman, it's infuriating."
In any event, when it comes to residency, Peduto is less of an absolutist on these issues than some of his critics. Throughout last year's mayoral campaign, he made it clear that he was willing to waive the requirement for police officers in exchange for other contract concessions.
A final vote on Lam and Ridge's appointment is slated for next Tuesday.