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Stratton won't enforce residency law for city jobs

Stratton won't enforce residency law for city jobs

The mayor is ignoring the city’s residency law, which requires that city workers live in the city, l

The mayor is ignoring the city’s residency law, which requires that city workers live in the city, leaving the Schenectady City Council with a quandary.

If the mayor won’t follow a law the council created, who can force him?

The official entrusted with the responsibility to enact the council’s policies is the mayor. But Mayor Brian U. Stratton said last week that he will not follow the city’s residency law because it has little value and doesn’t help the city.

“The best thing I can do for the citizens of Schenectady is hire the people who are going to deliver the most benefit for the dollar, the people who can do the best job,” he said. “I’m not going to compromise that.”

Council members have been wrestling with this issue ever since Stratton appointed out-of-towners to key positions when he took office in 2004. Currently five of the eight city department heads live outside the city limits, and a sixth lived in Delmar when he was hired but chose to follow the city’s law by moving here.

Stratton defended those appointments by saying that he had chosen the best employees available for highly specialized jobs in finance, property assessment and engineering.

But City Council members are now complaining that Stratton’s hiring policy has spread to entry-level jobs. Stratton responded to these complaints this month by including each employee’s hometown on the lists of new hires that he submits to the council. That fueled the debate, as Councilman Joseph Allen noticed on the first list that the only salaried new employee was an Albany resident.

“Everyone else is $8 an hour, $15 an hour, lifeguards, temporary positions,” he said. “The one position for $46,000 went to somebody from Albany when I know people from Schenectady applied for it. It was posted for the mid-30s and all of a sudden it goes to $46,000 to somebody from Albany? I’d like to know what’s going on here.”

Mackey Elonda of Albany was hired as a program data specialist to help run the city’s new lead abatement program, Stratton said.

He said no one from Schenectady was as well-trained as Elonda.

“She came with specialized training and skills from the Albany lead abatement program,” he said.

Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard objected to that, noting that Schenectady County trains local workers to do lead abatement.

“Don’t we train for that? Is there no one qualified?” she said. “I believe we have to do everything possible to see that we have a skilled workforce in Schenectady.”

She and Allen maintain that the city should offer its jobs to city taxpayers first, as a way of getting workers who care about improving the city because they live here and as a way of combating local unemployment.

Blanchard said the policy would also help Schenectady’s economy.

“It’s a known fact that people spend their salaries close to home,” she said. “I have no gripes about waivers but we need to look at our residents first.”

The mayor can convene a residency board to issue temporary, one-year residency waivers in extraordinary circumstances. However, mayors have rarely called for a residency board meeting and Stratton has not asked for waivers for most of his employees. He has also not asked for waiver renewals for employees who continue to live outside the city after their first year.

The waiver exemption was set up to make allowances for situations like the one that Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden found himself in when he was offered a job with the city in 2004. His wife’s son was about to start his senior year Ravena High School. Van Norden asked for a waiver so that his son wouldn’t have to switch schools.

Van Norden voluntarily moved to Schenectady the following summer, even though Stratton has not enforced the rule against any employee. By law, the mayor can fire employees if they won’t move to Schenectady — but Stratton said last week that he isn’t interested in enforcing the law.

“I don’t know the true value of the residency rule. I have a hard time seeing the full value,” Stratton said. After some thought, he offered, “It’s always nice to have someone who’s part of our community.”

But, he said, the city can often get better employees if he doesn’t require them to move to Schenectady.

He added that he never intended to enforce the law, beginning with his earliest appointments after being elected mayor.

“I think I’ve been very consistent since the day I took office,” he said. “My philosophy is get the best and the brightest, form the best team and you will serve the city of Schenectady.”

Among his team leaders, city residents include Van Norden, City Clerk Carolyn Friello and Building Inspector Keith Lamp. Out-of-towners include Director of Development Richard Purga, Assessor Patrick Mastro, Engineer Bernie Sisson, Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam, and Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen.

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