I-Team Report: Beyond the City Limits

January 27, 2011 4:37:30 AM PST
The ordinance that prevents city of Chicago workers from living beyond the city limits has for years been a point of debate and contention, especially at contract time. The residency issue is now intersecting two arenas: the courts and the mayoral race.

Candidates are discussing where they stand on the law while judges weigh a decision that could effectively change it.

The Illinois Supreme Court is promising to decide whether Rahm Emanuel fulfills Chicago election law that requires candidates to have lived in the city one year prior to running for office.

Mr. Emanuel claims that he was a Chicago resident even while working in Washington as white house chief of staff, because he intended to move back into the Ravenswood house he still owns and has been renting out.

If the Illinois Supreme court rules that Emanuel's intent to return to his Chicago home was sufficient, what would stop tens of thousand of municipal workers including police and firefighters from moving to the suburbs and making a similar pledge to return?

"You need a clear set of laws," said Dick Simpson, head of UIC political science department and former alderman.

Simpson says if the court allows Emanuel to run, justices need to outline specific, understandable residency requirements.

"Otherwise, anyone who wants to run for anything even if they live in New York and fly in and run for two weeks would be eligible to run on the ballot," said Simpson.

How such a 'residency by intent' provision would translate for rank and file city workers may have been answered by the head of the Chicago firefighters' union.

"We just feel very strongly that all public servants should be held to the same rules as we are, and if that's what they rules are then those rules need to be enforced," said Tom Ryan, firefighters' union president.

This is where the residency legal debate intersects with the mayoral campaign.

When candidate Gery Chico accepted the firefighters' endorsement, he said that Chicago had outgrown such a residency requirement and that eliminating it was something he would consider of elected mayor.

"I'm not going to prejudge where this would come out, but I said I would put the issue on the table for discussion," said Chico.

Chico said he pledged the same openness to the Fraternal Order of Police before that union endorsed him. And so once again, the issue of city employee residency is right in the middle of a race for mayor, along with questions about the effect.

"If you had 10 percent of the population move out of a community because of changing a requirement like that, yes, it would cause a major problem for that community and there's a few communities in Chicago where that might happen," said Simpson.

Some neighborhoods on the Northwest and Southwest sides would be particularly affected by an exodus of city workers, according to Simpson, because there are large clusters of police and firefighters. Simpson disputes some experts who believe the state Supreme Court will rule quickly on the issue.