Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The downside of requiring city residence for municipal employees: self-interest can capture government operations

Washington Post Saturday columnist Colbert King laments in his most recent piece, "Washington, D.C., is run by people who don't even live here," that the majority of people employed by the City of Washington don't live in the city, that employing DC residents on the part of the local government would be a step forward in terms of dealing with un- and under-employment within the city.

While my preference would be for city employees to be city residents, especially because the city captures income taxes from residents, a reflexive preference for city residents as government employees can be problematic.

1.  Residents as government employees may vote in their personal economic interest.  City residents vote in city elections and city government employees voting can end up voting their own interests, rather than the interests of the city as a whole.

This was a real problem when Marion Barry was mayor and so many city residents were on the city government payroll -- DC had more government employees per capita than any other local government in the US, which contributed to the city's bankruptcy in the mid-1990s.

Related concerns include employee unions (although not necessarily comprised of city residents) can be big donors to campaigns, earning the fealty of councilmembers voting for better than average wages or pensions.

This can be fiscally irresponsible, which is increasingly evident as cities across the country face bankruptcy, high costs of pensions and an inability to fully fund them, spiraling health insurance costs, etc.

2.  Hiring under-qualified workers.  Particular residents may be underqualified but hired anyway, because of an overall preference to hire locally.  While this helps the unemployment rate it doesn't necessarily contribute to a better functioning government.

This was a real issue in the high government employee numbers during the various Barry Administrations.  I remember going to my first local community government meeting in 1987 or 1988, and a representative from the DC Department of Public Works was barely intelligible.  He wore a nice suit, but made no sense when he spoke.

3.  Parochialism and mediocrity.  Similarly, a bias for local residents as government employees can encourage parochialism and mediocrity in terms of perspectives, visions, and capabilities.  It can be good to mix things up.

I always find it interesting that many land use and transportation planners in area jurisdictions like Montgomery and Arlington Counties live in DC.  The advantage of multiple roles is that can help those communities be more progressive while aiding the knowledge of local residents.

Ward 9.  For years, the "problem" that Mr. King writes about, DC government employees living in the suburbs has been a running joke in terms of how Prince George's County is referred to as Ward 9 -- DC has eight wards or political districts -- because so many DC Government employees live there. Parochialism doesn't necessarily fade when you cross to the other side of the DC-county line.

The suburban-urban divide within the city.  And people who live in the suburbs might not care all that much or have the right center city urban perspective about working on issues while working for DC.

Then again, I argue that as it is, DC is shaped towards suburban thinking ("DC as a suburban agenda dominated city")  on account of how the "Outer City" dominates the city's political agenda, as 10 of the city's 14 elected officials other than Attorney General live in the Outer City.  The others live in the original "L'Enfant" city, which is the most urban part of the city.

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At 11:15 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

speaking of pensions, the San Diego Union-Tribune just did an article reporting on Census Bureau data for public pension systems in California, and the revenue sources (govt. contributions, employee contributions, investment income).


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