Failure to Move Spurs Legal Debate

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

D.C. Council members are upset that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's top legal adviser does not plan to move into the city, setting up a possible confrontation over the District's residency law.

Some council members said that Peter Nickles, the mayor's general counsel, appears to be taking advantage of a loophole in the law by declining to move into the District from Great Falls, where he has lived for 44 years. Fenty (D) has defended Nickles's decision, saying the general counsel's position is not covered by the residency requirement.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he respects Nickles, a veteran corporate lawyer with a long record of public service. But, Gray emphasized, Nickles's choice of residence is "symbolic and makes a powerful statement."

"This is not about one's legal skills," Gray said. "This is a question about whether people in leadership positions should live in the District. Once it starts, where does it stop?"

The dispute marks the latest flare-up in what has been a hot issue in the District, particularly during the past decade when two bills have been introduced to compel D.C. employees to live in the city. As a council member, Fenty supported both laws, including one that covers "excepted and executive service" employees.

The council tightened the residency law in 2002, when Inspector General Charles C. Maddox was accused of violating it.

The issue arose again in June when the council voted to give an employment advantage -- preference points -- to District residents searching for D.C. government jobs. And now they say they plan to close what some describe as a loophole that may allow Nickles to maintain his longtime address in Northern Virginia, a home he does not want to give up.

Nickles was among the first appointments Fenty made after his election as mayor. In addition to his experience as a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, Nickles had done much pro bono work on behalf of the homeless, the mentally retarded, juvenile offenders and D.C. prisoners. In that advocacy role, he often found himself fighting the District in court. Fenty viewed him as an ideal choice to spur reforms.

The mayor said Nickles, whose annual salary is $160,000, is exempted from the residency law because he is a lawyer in excepted service.

"Excepted-service attorneys, by statute, do not have a residency requirement," Fenty said in an e-mailed response to questions on the issue. Excepted-service employees are political appointees who serve at the mayor's behest.

Several council members said they believe the law makes it clear that residency is a must for the mayor's Cabinet. Nickles, like Attorney General Linda Singer, is not exempt, they said. Singer lives in Northwest Washington. Although council members said they recognize Nickles's legal ability and his close ties to the mayor, some were against giving him a waiver.

"When one gets an exception, everybody wants an exception. Where do you draw the line?" said council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7).

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