AT LAST it is being said out loud by District of Columbia legislators who have rethought their positions on the city's residency requirement for local government employees: it's creating hardships, discouraging new talent and eroding the ranks. Time was when city legislators didn't say these things for fear of being branded disloyal. The idea was to keep employment opportunities for in-city residents, protect the tax base by blocking government-employee defections to suburban homes and prevent continued government rule by outsiders with no city ties. But positive results have been limited while the negatives grow daily. This has prompted thoughtful D.C. Council members to urge an end to the strict live-in rule -- and it can't come too soon.

Council member Betty Ann Kane, previously an advocate of mandatory residency, has now joined member Hilda Mason in support of a system in which applicants would receive preference for jobs if they live in the city, but would not have to live inside the District line. Mrs. Kane's latest view comes after a hearing held by a council committee that she heads. Her committee's report on testimony at that hearing cites difficulties in hiring for a wide range of D.C. jobs: teachers, police officers, firefighters, librarians, clerks and medical personnel, among others.

Certain exemptions have been granted to recruit in some fields, but, as the report notes, the necessity for granting these very exemptions defeats the goal of hiring District residents for city jobs. And though some city officials continue to deny it, suburban governments are stealing experienced people who cannot afford even modest in-city housing when they marry and have children.

Council member Carol Schwartz, who also supports changes in the law, believes that the live-in rule should be strictly enforced for employees in the top policy-making jobs in the government. Their salaries allow it, and their decisions should reflect it.