This week, Des Plaines lifted the brick on its seven department heads, telling them they no longer have to live in Des Plaines in order to work for the city.
In doing so, the City Council may appear to be flouting the will of its citizens, or at least the will of the citizenry in 2001, when voters were asked if department heads should live in town. Of the 9,501 people who voted on the issue, 65.7 percent of them said yes.
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Pretty overwhelming, right? Still, the Des Plaines City Council did the right thing this week.
The appeal of residency requirements for Des Plaines or other suburbs was one thing in 2001, but they are not as relevant today. Many things changed in this country after 2001, and one of them was the housing market and thus the mobility of potential high-level managers.
Even by 2005, when the Northwest Municipal Conference surveyed its member towns on the issue, many had quit the practice of requiring residency for their department heads. Of the 25 towns that responded to the survey, just 13 had some type of residency requirement, most limited to their top administrator. Since then, more have abandoned it. Park Ridge, for instance, dropped the requirement that its city manager live in town when it wanted to expand its candidate pool.
The question isn't whether suburban residents want their department heads living in town -- who wouldn't say yes? The more relevant question is, How important is it to them? Is it more important than getting the best candidate for the job? Is residency so important as to justify taking a less-qualified individual for a top municipal job than someone who lives out of town and can't sell his/her house without taking a bath?
That wasn't the question Des Plaines voters were asked in 2001's nonbinding referendum, but in our view, the answer is a qualified no. In the suburbs, department heads above all need to be professionals. And if they don't live in town -- well, at least the elected officials do, and that's more important.
For their part, Des Plaines' leaders certainly can say, "We tried to be responsive, but we've found residency is tougher to put into practice than necessary, and just not as relevant as people expected."
Unlike many urban residency requirements, which often were put into place to boost the local economy and create a handy patronage army, suburban residency requirements most often reflect a community's desire to promote interest and loyalty among its department heads. Department heads should share the ups and downs of the regular citizenry, the theory goes -- they should drive on the local roads, pay the same taxes, share the problems of neighborhood flooding, visit the hometown festivals, send their children to the local schools. In other words, be invested, both wallet and soul.
Those are noble goals. But living outside of town doesn't mean one won't be invested in the community that provides their professional livelihood. The best will be. And isn't getting the "best" what it should be about, anyway?