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Council may ease residency rules for directors

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

City Council will consider easing residency requirements for the city of Elizabeth City’s department heads, in response to a request from City Manager Rich Olson.

Council voted unanimously last week to consider an ordinance allowing department directors to live within 30 miles of the city. Councilors plan to review a draft ordinance later this month. If they find it acceptable, they would send it to a public hearing on Sept. 9, after which it could be enacted.

The city has long had special residency requirements for its department heads, Olson said last week. City council passed an ordinance in 1996 that set those requirements, though it grandfathered current department heads and city employees. However, the city accidentally eliminated the requirement in 2007 while repealing and replacing its ordinances through recodification, Olson said.

Council then restored the in-city residency requirement in January 2015, while also grandfathering in city employees who served before then.

Olson asked councilors to change the ordinance now so that, if someone is hired as a department head and they already live within 30 miles of the city, they would not have to move inside the city.

People hired as department heads who live more than 30 miles away would still be required to move inside the city. Olson explained that if a new employee already has to move, they should go ahead and move into the city.

Police and fire chiefs would be exceptions. Olson requested that department heads whose “job requirements make it essential” to live in the city still be required to do so. Police and fire chiefs need to be ready to respond quickly to emergencies, he noted.

The mindset of residency requirements is that department heads, as top employees, should be readily available and be personally invested in the community they serve.

In asking those requirements be eased, Olson first explained the city helps current employees rise in the ranks, and even helps pay for higher education needed for advanced certifications and degrees. However, he said the technical skills for department heads are hard to find, so he’d like more leeway to help recruit them.

In a followup interview, Olson explained the residency issue is a broad concern. He didn’t bring the issue forward because of any one department, he said.

Councilor Kem Spence questioned if the city could hold the police and fire chiefs to a stricter residency standard. Olson responded that fast response times for those departments are an overriding concern.

Councilors Darius Horton and Billy Caudle also noted Olson hadn’t brought a draft ordinance to them to the meeting; they asked to see that language before setting the public hearing.

Provided councilors agree to consider the residency change, Olson said he would present a draft ordinance at their next meeting on Monday. Councilors voted to take up the matter then.

In a followup interview, Olson said that interim department directors remain exempt from residency requirements.

The residency changes also would not apply to the city manager’s position, Olson said.

“The nature of that job, it needs to be in the city,” he said.

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