TEN YEARS AGO, when Marion Barry, council member at large, introduced a proposal requiring that D.C. government workers live in the city, there were many arguments given for it and few complaints. At that time, the elected local government was new -- but not so the bureaucracy of the District Building. It didn't reflect home rule; as D.C. Office of Policy Director Edward M. Meyers recalled on the Close to Home page Sunday, 62 percent of the higher level employees (GS-9 and above) lived in the suburbs, as did 78 percent of the police officers, including 92 percent of those ranked lieutenant and above. There was a resentment of what many referred to as the "occupation army," and there were racial undertones to it: a largely white force, taking money from the city to the suburbs, with no stake in seeing that good services were provided and money not wasted. That was reason enough then for at least an experiment in residency requirements. But today those reasons ebb in the face of new circumstances and new city needs.

The most striking change is in living patterns. Housing costs in much of the city have sent blacks and whites to homes in the suburbs -- and stories now abound of people who have quit or plan to quit D.C. government jobs because of family requirements for more housing at prices they can hope to afford. Another change is a positive result of the rule that has fulfilled its purpose: many city government jobs that might easily have gone to nonresidents in the past have been filled by those who either did live in the city or agreed to move inside the District lines. The difficulty today is that there are certain more specialized job classifications that demand a wider field for recruiting.

Witnesses at a public hearing this month ticked off a list of problems created by the law: D.C. General Hospital is short of nurses, hurting emergency room service and curbing the number of patients who can be taken care of. Public schools are short of special-education teachers and teachers for English-as-a-second-language classes. A total of 84 percent of nonresidents offered teaching jobs by the city school system turned them down. There are 75 vacancies in the corps of emergency medical technicians who operate the city's ambulance service. Public libraries are experiencing hiring difficulties. Police officers who join the force and live in the city for a while are leaving when they marry and have children, finding police work in the suburbs. The University of the District of Columbia has had a time trying to hire professors in certain disciplines.

Council member Hilda Mason has proposed an amendment providing a preference for applicants who live in the city. Though this could add a measure of subjective judgment to decisions about all other qualifications being "equal," it would allow the city to do its best by its own residents first while filling jobs that shouldn't go begging. Council member Carol Schwartz, who supports this change, also believes -- as we do -- that the live-in rule should be strictly enforced for employees in top policy-making positions in city hall. Their salaries allow it and their decisions should be those of local taxpayers subject to the consequences.