Wilmington has long had a strict requirement for employees: they have to live within the city limits. Originally the requirement was in place for as long as they held a city job but was relaxed in the late 1990s to their first five years.
Proponents assert that the rule benefits the city in myriad ways, mostly by ensuring that employees, especially the police officers who protect residents, have a greater stake in the city’s economic and social livelihood.
But over the last year, with the city having trouble filling dozens of jobs for cops, planners, garbage collectors, financial analysts, traffic engineers, lawyers, and other key posts, Mayor Mike Purzycki has sought to eliminate the mandate.
First, his administration persuaded the state Legislature in 2022 to give the city authority to change the rule. The next step was for City Council to approve a bill that eliminated it, but that bill has languished for more than a year. The original sponsor, Council President Trippi Congo, told WHYY News this week that after getting feedback from constituents, he decided it wasn’t a good step for Delaware’s largest city.
The issue came to a head this week when Purzycki, who earlier this month announced he would not be seeking a third term in office in 2024, said in a news release that the city was no longer enforcing what he called the “former” residency requirement. The city has an authorized workforce of about 1,100 and currently has more than 90 vacancies, the release said.
The announcement triggered outrage and puzzlement by Congo and a handful of Council members, who criticized the mayor for undermining their legal authority to decide which laws govern the city and its 72,000 residents.
That set the stage for Council’s meeting Thursday night, when the bill, now sponsored by Councilman Al Mills, was on the agenda for a vote. Congo told WHYY News that Mills appeared to have the votes on the 13-member body to kill the residency rule.
Opponents were ready for a fight, however.
‘More likely to be invested in the community’s welfare’
Some 75 spectators, almost all against the measure, packed the chambers, with many holding “Vote No” signs. More than 30 addressed members from the podium, with all speakers except for three cops and a police department aide saying they were against the change.
The speakers criticized the mayor’s attempted power play on his way out of office, and scoffed at the notion that city residents couldn’t fill most of the jobs or that outsiders wouldn’t move here with the right package of incentives. They urged the city to promote the job vacancies the way they proclaim the construction of new downtown apartments and stressed that only Council could decide whether the city has or doesn’t have a residency requirement.
“When a city employee lives in the community that they serve they are more likely to be invested in the community’s welfare and outcomes,” Rachelle Wilson said, adding that Wilmington has more than 2,500 unemployed people who would love to obtain, and be qualified for, many of the jobs.
“It’s not complicated,’’ Wilson said. “Allow people to be trained to do the jobs you want them to do rather than remove the residency, because people who live here care about us here. The police know us here.”
Many also warned Council members who might vote to eliminate the residency rule that they would be working to oust them in the 2024 election.
One was Audrey McCarthy, who said it was “degrading to say you cannot find applicants to fill a trash collector position.”
Staring down Council members, McCarthy said, “I want to remind you that it is the residents of Wilmington that put you in your seats. We have the power to put you there and we have the power to remove you. And that is what we will do. If you vote to remove the program, you can consider your seats vacant.”
The chamber erupted in applause during McCarthy’s remarks, as they did for several others who blasted the notion of removing residency.
Keandra McDole, who has been a vocal critic of Delaware law enforcement authorities since city police officers killed her brother Jeremy in 2015, seconded that notion.
Holding a flyer circulated in chambers that contained the names of seven council members who were poised to eliminate residency, McDole said: “I will work hard to make sure that you do not have your seat next year. And y’all know I’m coming hard.”
‘This decline in officers is untenable for a safe city’
Police officer Michael Fossett, who said he joined the force in 2004, countered that public safety in a city with an epidemic of gun violence could suffer even further if the residency rule remains in effect.
He echoed Purzycki’s remarks this week that the current police recruit class only has seven members, far fewer than needed, because there were so few qualified applicants.
“With the housing market the way it is right now, in order to have to buy something here, it’s not tenable for them to do that, with the rates of mortgages and interest rates and everything else,’’ Fossett said. “Not to mention uprooting their kids and their school systems and so forth.”
Fossett also noted that many officers have left for other police agencies and some 75 are currently eligible for retirement.
“So this decline in officers is untenable for a safe city in the future if we are losing officers at this rate and not gaining more officers coming in,’’ he said. “It will cause problems in terms of speedy service. When you call 911 how fast can an officer get to you?’’
Others criticized Mills for not attending the meeting in person. Instead, he participated by a Zoom connection, which some speakers labeled as cowardly.
When Mills finally spoke, after the public railed against his bill for three hours, it was clear he had listened to the concerns expressed by the public.
“I appreciate the comments of our community at this time. I do wish to hold the legislation,’’ Mills said, to a chorus of boos from the crowd that wanted the measure defeated then. “I feel like we need more time to dig into this. So we as a community can get this right.
“The debate that we’re having needs to be amongst council members. We don’t need to be in here debating and arguing with community members. We are here to represent them. We have the power to get this right. So I hope that we can come together, use our power and our voice to do what’s right in the best interest of the community, and get back to running the city business.”
Mills gave no timetable for when he might seek a vote, leaving some council members and the public wondering how the city would handle residency.
Congo responded that the city still has a five-year residency requirement, but “the administration has chosen not to enforce it.”
The mayor’s spokesman, John Rago, did not respond to a request for comment Friday about Council’s decision to postpone the vote.
Mayor Purzycki would not agree to an interview this week about the controversy. But in his Monday news release, he stressed that the city was moving forward with hiring, without requiring that hirees move into the city.
“We are hopeful that there will now be applicants for these positions where there were none before now that residency is not a factor,’’ Purzycki said.
“These vacant positions are undermining the efficiency of our government. I am proud that we are moving forward to fill much-needed positions to ensure we can provide the services that residents expect from their government.”
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