By Seth Daniel
Tuesday night featured the long-anticipated Residency Ordinance committee discussion amongst the new City Council, and when the cards had been laid on the table, it appeared to be a 5-5 tie with Councillor Roy Avellaneda still holding his cards close to the chest – likely to be the deciding vote if the measure comes to a roll call.
Members of the City Council, police union officials, fire union officials, City Manager Tom Ambrosino and interested residents packed the meeting room on Tuesday to learn about what could be done and where decision-makers stood on the issue.
The matter of a residency ordinance for new hires in the police and fire department has been before the Council scores of times over the past few years, and this time around Councillor Giovanni Recupero and other supporters were looking to give the populist cause another run with six new councillors now seated.
In this iteration of the proposed ordinance, which holds high popularity with the voters of the city, Recupero has called for all newly hired police officers and firefighters to remain living in the city for five years after being hired. Right now, anyone taking the Civil Service test to become a police officer or firefighter must have lived in Chelsea one year prior to taking the test. That develops the residency hiring preference, but many fret that some officers and firefighters leave town after being hired.
Others, however, weren’t so worried about where these folks lived, but rather how they performed their jobs.
City Solicitor Cheryl Fisher Watson said 39 of 102 police officers live in Chelsea and 17 of 88 firefighters live in Chelsea. Overall, out of all City employees, 38.8 percent (out of 876 employees) reside in Chelsea. Recupero’s initiative would only apply to newly hired police and fire, though.
“It makes good sense for them to live here with us,” said Recupero. “They would provide us with a middle class in our city, which we do not have. The middle class drives us. The average person in Chelsea doesn’t make that much money. They make $25,000 or $30,000, while police and fire make $75,000 or $80,000. They also get to see with their own eyes what the people go through every day. They would be more involved in the community. The gain is you live in the community, work in the community and are part of the community. If it’s such a bad idea, why does Boston, Everett and Malden do it?”
Recupero found allies in Councillor Damali Vidot, Luis Tejada, Enio Lopez and Leo Robinson.
Vidot said she may not totally agree with the ordinance, but sees that her constituents overwhelmingly want it.
“It is overwhelming the amount of people that want the police to live in the city,” she said. “I am representing the community. When I speak with them, this is what they want. If I’m here because the public voted me here, I have to represent them. I have to say it is overwhelming that the people want the police and fire to live here and it should be DPW and other departments too.”
Said Lopez, “If they buy a house here, they live there and pay taxes to the City. That should be a gain to the City. Plus, the young people will see them as an example and something to look up to.”
Others did not agree, including Council President Dan Cortell – who has long opposed the idea.
“We have about 40 percent of the police living here and 20 percent of the firefighters living here and without requiring it,” he said. “I have always said the day those numbers are down to 5 percent, I would consider this. If there are that many living here in Chelsea now by their own choice, we have good numbers. It’s not broken and we don’t need to fix it.”
He was joined by Councillors Judith Garcia, Yamir Rodriguez, Matt Frank and Paul Murphy.
“The ordinance would make it hard to track down people,” he said. “I don’t believe we would have implied distrust of our police and firefighters.”
Garcia said she wanted to focus on the best person for the job.
“If we are going to get the best officers, we need to focus on recruitment and not residency,” she said, noting that studies from Washington State University and others have proven that residency ordinances don’t necessarily make communities safer – in perception or reality.
The only councillor who didn’t make his or her opinion known was Avellaneda, and he will likely be a deciding factor if an when the measure hits the floor of the Council.
Union officials were adamant in their distaste for the proposed ordinance, both fire and police unions.
“As a union president and a taxpayer, I don’t care if they live on Webster Ave or Mass Ave, as long as they can do the job well,” said Police Patrolmen’s Union President Mark O’Connor.
Fisher Watson said if the ordinance were to pass, it would only be a recommendation to City Manager Tom Ambrosino – who may or may not choose to enforce the ordinance. It would also, if passed, require a new collective bargaining agreement with the public safety unions.