Residency Rules Ignite Race Debate

For decades, Cicero allowed only residents to hold municipal jobs. The town, and its work force, remained overwhelmingly white.

Today, Cicero’s firefighters want to get rid of the town’s remaining residency requirements and encourage African Americans living elsewhere to apply. But critics suspect another motive: White workers want the freedom to escape the industrialized western suburb and its fast-growing Latino population.

Cicero firefighters are among the first to take advantage of a 1997 change to the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act that gives them greater leverage in contract negotiations. Under the amended law, if municipal officials reject their demands to change residency requirements, unions can now appeal to an independent arbitrator. The Cicero case is currently in arbitration, and a decision is expected early next year.

“Cicero is serving as a test. –¦We are all sitting back waiting to see what happens,” said Richard Reimer, a labor attorney with the Chicago firm of Sklodowski, Puchalski & Reimer. He represents firefighters in 15 Illinois municipalities.

Jacqueline Thompson was fired from a Cicero job because she refused to move into town. (Photo by Jerry Gholson)

The impact of the decision could be widespread in the six-county metropolitan area. Eighty-five of the 149 fire departments with full-time firefighters impose some form of residency requirement, showed surveys by The Chicago Reporter and the Illinois Professional Firefighters Association. And Reimer expects residency to be an issue in many of his upcoming contract negotiations.

Critics of residency laws contend they restrict citizens’ rights to live where they please and shrink the pool of qualified workers. In some suburbs, they say, firefighters may be unable to afford housing.

Proponents argue that the requirement keeps tax money in town, opens opportunities for local workers and ensures that off-duty emergency personnel are available.

“A fireman’s job is a cream-of-the-crop job,” said Councilman Joseph R. Shetina of southwest suburban Joliet, whose residency law dates to 1967. “And we want to give these jobs to local people.”

Race is often not far from these discussions. Some say the requirements keep minorities out; others say they can be used to promote racial diversity. And when the debate gets heated, the stereotypes fly.

Even civil rights advocates are torn over the issue. “These rigid laws can perpetuate an all-white municipal work force,” said Aurie Pennick, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a Chicago-based fair housing organization.

But ending residency could further segregate a community, said F. Willis Caruso, director of The John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic in Chicago. “It’s hard for me to really believe white firefighters are fighting to end these requirements because they want to live in integrated towns.”

Good Schools

For firefighter Thomas J. Matousek Jr., the issue is straightforward: He wants his kids to go to the best schools he can find, but doesn’t want to exhaust the family’s college savings. If he remained in Forest Park, Matousek, 45, said he would have to pay for private schools or send his children to Proviso East High School in an unincorporated area outside Maywood.

Earlier this year the western suburb of Forest Park decided to allow most of its 120 police officers, firefighters and municipal workers to live outside the village. They requested the change “because this is the U.S. of A., the land of the free,” said Matousek, president of Local 2753 of the Forest Park Firefighters Association. He has been with the department nearly 20 years.

Matousek’s wife and their two oldest children already have moved to an apartment in Naperville, where the kids are attending Naperville North High School. He and his youngest will join them in January, he said. The new school “is bigger and better, it has everything.”

The March Illinois Goal Assessment Program reading tests, for example, show that Naperville North, which has a graduation rate of 89 percent, scored in the top 5 percent of high schools statewide. Proviso East, with a graduation rate of 57.5 percent, scored in the bottom 10 percent, school records show.

“Gangs and drugs appear to be problems there,” Matousek said of Proviso East.

“We fight this image daily,” said DeMaris Johnson, director of communications and community relations at Proviso East. “Drugs and crime were never a major problem here.”

The residency debate is not new. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the requirement in a Philadelphia case, but since then, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued 35 suburbs for using residency to discriminate against minorities.

Thirteen of those suburbs are in the Chicago area. Between 1983 and 1993, the Justice Department sued Berwyn, Cicero, Dolton, Elmwood Park, Forest Park, Forest View, Franklin Park, Melrose Park, Northlake, Oak Lawn, River Grove, South Holland and Worth. At the time, most were predominantly white towns with few, if any, black workers; all required at least one year of residency before individuals could apply for municipal jobs.

Cicero was the first Chicago suburb sued. When officials complained about being singled out, the others were added in southern and western Cook County, said Christine DiBartolo, a Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

The department “does not object to the use of move-in requirements for municipal workers so long as the requirement does not have the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of race or national origin,” she said.

All of the municipalities eventually signed federal consent decrees, either dropping their requirements altogether or, as in the case of Cicero, allowing people to move into town after being hired.

While residency remains a hot topic in Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis; Denver and other cities, no changes are expected in Chicago, said Alderman William M. Beavers (7th), chairman of the City Council Police and Fire Committee.

Police and firefighters “can say what they want, but they will continue to be required to live in the city,” said Beavers, who has been on leave from the Chicago Police Department since 1983.

Chicago is the only Illinois city exempted from the amended law by the Illinois General Assembly.

Residency “keeps property values up by giving the city a captive audience. … It’s a matter of voters and a tax base,” said Robert Podgorny, first vice president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. But it also constricts choice, he said. “I love my neighborhood of Norwood Park, but we would like the right to live where we want.”

Help Wanted

Jacqueline Thompson, 34, is rooting for the Cicero firefighters. The African American testified on their behalf in an arbitration hearing. Thompson was hired as a Cicero parking enforcement officer in April 1996 for $18,000 a year. She was fired in May 1997 because she refused to move from west suburban Bellwood, where she lives in a building owned by her mother.

“Blacks don’t want to move [to Cicero]. Property values are going down, there are gangs, it looks like a Mexican village,” she said.

Her comment “is racist, and she should be ashamed of herself,” said Cicero town attorney Terence P. Gillespie, a partner with the Chicago law firm of Genson & Gillespie. “If someone said they didn’t want to move somewhere because it was a black ghetto, she would be furious.”

Thompson never went looking for an apartment in Cicero but said her black friends told her they had problems finding housing. She is now unemployed and studying to become a computer maintenance technician at Triton College in west suburban River Grove.

“Housing became her barrier to employment in Cicero,” said J. Dale Berry, an attorney with Cornfield and Feldman, who represents Cicero’s 60-member Local 717 of the International Association of Firefighters. “Cicero can advertise job openings all they want, but if there is no housing, people can’t keep the jobs.”

African Americans avoid Cicero because of the requirement, according to Evanston firefighter-paramedic Norman Henderson, 41, who also testified before the arbitrator. “I remember hearing about incidents in Cicero when I was growing up. –¦ It was one of those places that you knew you should not go after dark,” he said.

With a black population of 214 people–”0.3 percent of the population–”and a history of housing discrimination, Cicero’s residency requirement doesn’t appear to have promoted work force integration. Of the town’s 563 municipal employees, 14 are black and 88 are Latino. There are two Latino and no black firefighters.

Cicero signed a consent decree in May 1986, agreeing to end its residency requirement and to increase efforts to recruit black job applicants. In 1988, the decree was amended, requiring new hires to move into town within six months, with an additional six months for those who had trouble finding housing.

In 1996, the Justice Department extended the consent decree another five years after determining that “Cicero has failed to increase appreciably the black representation within its municipal work force.”

In September, with the new law behind them, Cicero firefighters brought their case to an independent arbitrator.

The union argues that the requirement is selectively enforced, provides employees with few housing options and limits the town’s ability to recruit firefighters, said Raymond G. Andel, president of Local 717.

Similar towns that require residency get an average of 260 applicants, compared to 489 job-seekers in towns without the requirements, according to a union survey.

But without it, Cicero would have an “occupation force” of police and firefighters who live elsewhere, Gillespie said.

“What the town asks in return from these folks is that you reside or you come in after a period of time to live in the community that pays you so well, trains you so well, and treats you so well,” he told the arbitrator in a September meeting.

But Berry argued that by allowing Cicero to keep this requirement, the consent decree “sacrifices jobs for illusory housing expectations. And people ended up with neither housing nor jobs,” he said.

Gillespie scoffed at the union’s argument. “Having the all-white fire department argue that residency is racist is ridiculous,” he said. “They just want to get out of town now that it has turned Latino.” Cicero’s Latino population hit 52.4 percent in 1997.

Instead, Gillespie said residency can encourage minorities to move in and open up municipal jobs for those already in town–”including Cicero’s 40,930 Latinos.

“Firemen stay around a long time so there hasn’t been much hiring in recent years,” he said. “But we are now getting to the point where the requirement will help integrate the department.”

White Flight

The residency debate can take some strange twists. Maywood officials, for example, openly worry about losing whites from the western suburb’s work force. The village requires police and firefighters hired after 1975 to live within its borders.

“If the white municipal employees leave, they most likely will be replaced by minorities, and minorities are perceived to be an economic negative in the bond financing community,” according to the closing argument presented by the village during negotiations in 1995.

Maywood’s population is more than 88 percent black, show data published by Claritas Inc., an Ithaca, N.Y.-based market research company. But village documents show that the sworn fire department is 54.8 percent white.

Police officers have called for an end to residency in their current contract negotiations. Firefighters plan to include a similar proposal when their contract expires in 2000, said labor lawyer Reimer, who represents about 50 Maywood firefighters.

In 1995, the firefighters asked for permission to live within 20 miles of the village. In a negotiation brief, they called the in-town requirement “an antiquated rule used to exercise some degree of political control over Village employees.”

They also contended that “Maywood experiences the highest number of cases of AIDS, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.” In 1995, the town had posted the highest rates of these diseases and the fourth-highest rate of AIDS among the 34 towns of western Cook County, according to the Cook County Department of Public Health. “Maywood has a high population of intravenous drug users, prostitutes and poor, which combines to put the Village of Maywood at high risk,” the union alleged.

Maywood officials responded that keeping workers in town means they can respond quicker to fires. In addition, they did not want to “appear to condone white flight” by allowing firefighters to leave and requiring all other municipal employees, many of whom are black, to remain, the officials wrote in their closing argument.

In February 1996, Arbitrator Martin H. Malin ruled in favor of the town, concluding that while “residency has very little to do with the Village’s ability to fight fires,” the union had not made a convincing case for changing the status quo.

“If Maywood is a good enough place to make money,” said Stanley L. Hill, Maywood corporation counsel at the time of the negotiations, “then it is a good enough place to live.”

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For more information on the residency requirement issue, visit the following web sites:

A list of fire department union locals across the country

The U.S. Supreme Court 1976 decision on residency

The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police

The U.S. Department of Justice Division of Civil Rights

The City of Chicago residency rules for job applicants

Firefighters discussions about residency in the alt.firefighters usenet group

The Chicago Reporter’s February 1998 story “Police Forces Trail Suburbs in Pace of Racial Change.”

Pamela J. Appea, Sofia Javed, Michael Rohner, Karen Shields and Vickey Velazquez helped research this article.

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