The D.C. City Council yesterday voted to exempt over 1,832 city government positions from the city's strict and often controversial residency requirement, after a warning from city administrator Elijah B. Rogers that some members of Congress were considering lifting the residency law to fill badly needed vacancies here.
The council at first rejected Mayor Marion Barry's request for emergency legislation to allow him to ignore the residency rule in recruiting data processors, computer specialists, employes for Forest Haven, the city's facility for the mentally ill in Laurel, and the city's prison in Lorton.
But after three hours of highly charged and emotional debate, council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) asked for a reconsideration of that vote. Rolark had at first voted to reject the emergency exemptions, but she said she changed her mind after Rogers revealed a copy of a letter he received from Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the House District Committee. Dellums said he was prepared to take congressional action to lift the city's residency requirement if the city did not move swiftly to get Forest Haven up to its full staff level.
City officials have blamed the residency requirement for the severe understaffing at Forest Haven, a problem that they said prompted the federal government last year to strip the facility of its accreditation. Since then, Forest Haven has been losing $500,000 a month in Medicaid funds while officials have tried to fill 54 vacancies out of 777 allotted staff positions.
Forest Haven is located some 23 miles northeast of the city limits, and some city officials said the residency law would impose a hardship on anyone forced to live in Washington and commute to Laurel every day.
The council finally voted to exempt over 1,832 city government positions for six months. The exempted positions include the 777 staff positions at Forest Haven, 877 at Lorton prison, 76 top financial management positions, 102 data processors across all departments of the city government, and an unspecified number of positions at D.C. Village, a city-run home for the elderly.
Not all of those positions are vacant now, but the exemptions mean that as openings do occur in those areas, Barry will be able to fill them with nonresidents of Washington. At present, 25 financial management positions, the 54 at Forest Haven, and all 102 data processing positions are vacant.
Rogers said after the meeting that he still intended to hire District residents first. He promised the council not to give "a blanket authorization to department heads" to hire nonresidents.
The council members were initially wary of the exemptions, citing the high level of unemployment in their respective wards and even coming up with the names of some of their personal friends who they said could work for the city.
Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2), citing the 25 financial management vacancies, said, "Out of 650,000 people, you mean we can't find 25 people we can train or who have the intelligence to be trained, so we have to go outside the city when we have 18 percent unemployment?"
The emergency exemption request was initially defeated by a 6-to-7 vote. Wilson then proposed scrapping the entire residency requirement, across the board for all city government positions, arguing "either we want a residency requirement or we don't." After three hours of debate, his proposal also failed by a 6-to-7 vote.
But then Rogers revealed the Dellums letter, which led to a 9-to-4 reversal of the initial vote against the emergency residency requirement exemptions.
Voting yes on the emergency declaration were Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4); Betty Ann Kane (D-At-Large); Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3); David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1); Jerry A. Moore (R-At-Large); Hilda Mason (Statehood-At-Large); Chairman Arrington Dixon; William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5); and Rolark. Voting no were H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7); John Ray (D-At-Large); Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6); and Wilson. Kane, Rolark and Clarke switched and voted for the emergency exemptions.
Late yesterday afternoon, Mason, a longtime supporter of the residency law, introduced a bill that would scrap the current residency requirement and make residency a "preferential qualification" for city employment. Under the proposal, the mayor would no longer be required to hire city residents.