Hire-at-home rule doesn't do justice to taxpayers or region
By Michael Lewis
County commissioners do their best work when they debate policy instead of squabbling over whose friends should get contracts.
This month, they held one of those vital debates and - rare for this united commission - came close to an even split decision.
In broad terms, the issue was whether Miami-Dade's 30,000 employees must live in the county.
In broad terms, the commission voted 8-5 that they must.
And, in broad terms, the majority was wrong.
But this isn't a tale of the commission recklessly galloping in the wrong direction. In fact, good arguments could be - and were - made on both sides, and the proper decision was difficult to reach.
The county long has ordained that its employees must live here. The issue was whether to give the county manager leeway to hire key executives who live across a county line and can't be lured out of their homes. Commissioners rejected that, leaving the old policy in place.
Across this nation, counties wrestle with the same issue. Some restrict jobs to residents, some don't.
In Cook County, IL - Chicago - newly hired non-union workers get six months to move into the county. Miami-Dade is relatively generous, allowing 15 months.
Douglas County, WI, also offers a six-month grace period, though an audit found that 43 never moved in. Douglas also offers what Miami-Dade rejected - waivers for individual employees.
Hudson County, NJ, requires residency but doesn't enforce it.
And in Ohio, Attorney General Jim Petro ruled that county commissions can't legally limit employment based on residency.
Arguments can be made for requiring every Miami-Dade employee to live here. Those who do, said Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, take better care of their neighborhoods. Residents also have a better feeling for local nuances. Those who own homes pay taxes here, so they have economic commitments. And, of course, if they live here and get paid by the county, they have good reason to vote for their incumbent commissioners.
The first three of these four reasons are valid - but not compelling.
Commissioners Barbara Jordan and Katy Sorenson both noted correctly that this limitation undermines the effort to unite the region on such vital initiatives as transportation and environment. It's senseless to say on one hand that we're all in this together and on the other that it's every man for himself.
Even more important is the need to hire the absolutely best person for every job - not the best person in a limited group.
Every time government limits a job - or a contract - to select groups, it not only is unfair to jobseekers and companies in freezing out other candidates, it's also unfair to taxpayers by excluding the potentially best choices.
Remember when our ex-mayor wanted to consider for aviation director only candidates who lived next door to him and had no aviation experience at all? That's the extreme example of what can happen when you limit applicants.
The same thing just happened when one commissioner decided that the only firms that could financially advise the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust had to be small businesses run by women that were registered vendors with the county yet did not hold any county contracts. Tack on enough limitations and you make it almost impossible to find qualified candidates.
Limiting job applicants to 2.3 million Miami-Dade residents, fortunately, is hardly in that league. No doubt we have good candidates for every single job.
Good, yes. But do we have the absolute best? Not always - otherwise we'd skip those nationwide searches for key jobs that generally end up with a hometown choice anyhow. Every once in a while, however, even a biased search team finds someone elsewhere who's best at something we need, so clearly we may be excluding the best if we rule out outsiders.
That principle of openness and inclusiveness should apply in hiring under this county's $6.86 billion budget for its 45 departments.
In fact, in some, it already does. Current policy allows the building department to hire plans examiners and building inspectors who live in Broward County - and allows them to keep living there - because we need the broader talent pool.
The departments of corrections, fire and police are exempt from the hire-at-home rule for the same reason - they can't get the best people with a residency limitation.
And the aviation department is permitted to hire non-residents to work at the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport.
In 1999, some commissioners tried to amend the rules to exempt their own staff and their political appointees, settling for waivers for "humanitarian reasons" that presumably met the needs of the politically appointed.
Yet commissioners voted this month against allowing the county manager to hire non-residents in special cases for other jobs.
Commissioner Jordan got it right: She said she'd prefer a blanket repeal of the residency requirement to modifying it to add more exemptions since people who live here also work in other counties.
These combined appeals of growing regionalism and openness and inclusion in hiring practices must trump the natural inclination to want to hire our nearest neighbors.
Surely a community that draws business, investors and residents from around the globe shouldn't object to hiring the best person for a job even if it's from across a county line.
Commissioners would do well to debate the matter again - and then drop the residency rule altogether.