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Law's repeal likely
Council strikes residency rule on first read

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

By BULLETIN STAFF REPORTS -

The city of Martinsville is ending its policy of requiring department heads — with certain exemptions — to live within the city limits.

In a 3-2 vote, Martinsville City Council on Tuesday adopted on first reading an ordinance amendment to repeal the residency requirement.

The requirement has hindered the city in recruiting Henry County residents for jobs, according to Mayor Kim Adkins and some other council members.

Adoption on second reading, which would make the repeal official, will be considered during the council’s Aug. 27 meeting. Second adoption is all but certain, considering the majority vote that occurred Tuesday.

Councilmen Danny Turner and Mark Stroud voted against the repeal.

Department heads should be “part of the fabric of the community,” Turner said. He added that residents basically have told him that if city employees want to work for the city, they should want to live in the city.

Stroud said he thinks “the remedy” to problems created by the requirement has been to let the city manager make exemptions deemed necessary.

Martinsville resident Ural Harris, who spoke from the floor during the meeting, said he thinks department heads should be required to live in the city because “they need to have some skin in the game” by participating in city life.

The ordinance has stated that the city manager, city attorney, assistant city manager and department heads must establish residence in Martinsville within 12 months after their employment begins, and they must live in the city as long as it employs them.

But the city manager can make exceptions, the ordinance has stated, “when unusual or extraordinary conditions exist that would constitute a hardship for an applicant.”

Only one current department head — Fire Chief Kenneth Draper — now lives in the city, officials said.

When the residency requirement was adopted years ago, some department heads were exempted due to their many years of service to the city.

But “there has never been a point in time when all department heads lived in the city,” said City Manager Leon Towarnicki.

The city has 10 department head positions. That includes an assistant city manager position budgeted for the current fiscal year as well as a parks and recreation director position that has been vacant for a long time, yet which the city eventually intends to fill.

Of the 10 positions, five are vacant, Towarnicki said. Of the five that are not vacant, four department heads are eligible to retire either now or in the near future, he said.

In the next few years, “there will be a complete turnover of the upper management staff of the city,” Towarnicki predicted.

When filling department head vacancies, the city strives to hire the best qualified candidates, whether or not they live in Martinsville, he said.

In some departments, Towarnicki said, there are “people ready to move up” to director positions — they have the experience and qualifications — if they want to apply for the jobs. But keeping the residency requirement may stop any such people who live in the county from doing so, he said.

For one thing, “the housing market in the area is not favorable” to them selling their existing homes and moving, he said.

Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge said it would be “a disservice” to tell longtime employees who live outside Martinsville that they have to move to the city to be promoted from within.

“I’d like to see us reward people” for their hard work and dedication to the city by giving them chances for advancement, Hodge said.

The bigger issue than department heads living in the city, Towarnicki said, is that they can get to their offices quickly in an emergency requiring their expertise.

Vice Mayor Gene Teague noted that Towarnicki, who has worked for the city for more than 30 years, lives outside the city. He said Towarnicki always has made sound decisions and that all council members recently supported Towarnicki’s promotion to city manager.

Responding to Teague’s comment, Towarnicki said he has not encountered situations in which the fact that he lives in the county affected his decisions.

His decisions have been made “always with the best interest of the city at mind” and with the best information he could obtain, he said.

“People lose sight,” Teague said, that professionals make decisions based on expertise and loyalty to their employer.

Adkins said she sees Martinsville-Henry County as one community.

Still, “we’re all advocates for people to live in the city,” she said of council members.

The council voted 4-1 — with Turner dissenting — to prepare a resolution stating that when hiring department heads, the city will give “preferential treatment” to people who live in the city, even though it is willing to hire people from outside Martinsville.

The resolution will be brought to the council at the Aug. 27 meeting.

Also Tuesday, the council approved a resolution authorizing city employees to apply for $600,000 in state Industrial Revitalization Funds to help cover redevelopment costs for the Henry Hotel uptown.

The city has twice been turned down for the money because it did not have a firm commitment from a developer. Now that Waukeshaw Development Inc. has committed to the project, city officials hope that will convince the state to contribute the funds.

More about the funding resolution and other council actions will be reported in the Martinsville Bulletin on Thursday.

 

 
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