The city of Decatur has for 20 years had a rule requiring its department heads to live in Decatur. As of late, however, it is becoming a rule more honored in the breach than in the observance.
It is again being breached with the hiring of the city’s new chief financial officer.
The Decatur City Council last week voted to, pending successful contract negotiations, hire Kyle Demeester as the city’s new CFO, succeeding his former boss and mentor, John Andrzejewski, who retired Jan. 22.
The vote was 4-1, with longtime Councilman Billy Jackson, as he often does, casting the lone dissenting vote.
Jackson cited several reasons for his vote, and one of them is the fact Demeester doesn’t live in Decatur — and the council majority isn’t requiring him to move, despite the longstanding residency requirement for city department heads.
Jackson said the rule extends back at least to when Bill Dukes was mayor.
“Obviously, they think they know more than all previous councils after just four months in office,” Jackson said of his newly elected colleagues. “We’ve required department heads to live in the city for 50 years, and this idea of letting them live outside of the city is just recent.”
City Attorney Herman Marks said the residency issue has cropped up several times over his 40 years on the job, but there wasn’t an official rule until the council passed a resolution in October 2000 that requires all department heads to live in the city limits.
“It was generally understood that department heads lived in the city,” Marks said. Still, he added, “There have been some exceptions in recent years.”
There are good reasons for requiring department heads to live in the city. By living in Decatur, shopping here, and joining churches or other organizations here, they have a better understanding of the city and its needs, as well as what its residents want and expect from their government.
They also have skin in the game when it comes to the city’s problems, from potholes to whether city departments deal in an efficient and effective manner with the residents who rely on them.
When they live in Decatur, they pay taxes in Decatur and their children attend schools in Decatur. That increases their stake in the community.
It’s also a financial benefit for the city. The city’s 13 department heads have average annual salaries of about $100,000. That’s money that will likely be spent in the city in which they reside, generating property taxes, sales taxes and benefiting retailers.
It’s especially important for the city’s highest profile employees to live in Decatur when the city and the Chamber of Commerce are working to reduce years of stagnant residential growth, which has left Decatur on the outside looking in as surrounding cities have grown rapidly over the past two decades.
There are arguments on the other side. The main one is that the residency requirement limits the job applicant pool, which can be an issue especially when dealing with a specialized position like CFO.
Still, the CFO candidates this time were aware of the residency requirement when they applied, and if they weren’t willing to move to Decatur, they shouldn’t have applied in the first place. Clearly, they were counting on the council again making an exception to its own rule which, as Marks noted, it has done before.
The council should enforce the rule requiring city directors to live in Decatur. But failing that, it should get rid of the rule if it isn’t going to enforce it. Moreover, it should reopen the CFO candidate search. If the reason for ignoring the residency requirement is to get the best job candidates, then it’s worth considering how many candidates didn’t apply last time simply because they didn’t meet the residency requirement and didn’t want to move.
Enforce the rule, but if not, get rid of it.