Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer continues to call for amendments to the city’s residency ordinance, based on a superficial need to fill employment positions with candidates who do not or will not live in the city.
But he better be careful with such calls, because there are certainly legal, and supportable ways to give him what he is publicly calling for without giving him what he really wants, which is a blank check to exempt favored employees from laws requiring a bona fide residence within Trenton.
Mayor Palmer recently lost his handpicked, non-resident amigo, Police Director Joseph Santiago. The director decision to live outside the city and the mayor’s approval of that illegal arrangement resulted in a citizen’s lawsuit filed by a group including me.
The lawsuit was concluded when a judge officially declared that Mayor Palmer does not have the power to decide which employees are subject to residency and other city laws and which are not. Also, Mr. Santiago was ousted.
Now, Mayor Palmer is forced to exist as a mayor who can no longer pick and choose which employees follow the residency law based on favoritism and a warped sense of entitlement, and he wants his old powers back very badly.
He wants them so badly that he is feigning that the city cannot find suitable resident candidates for the police directorship, and is now demanding that City Council amend the law to allow him to look outside the city.
That position is obviously false because the city never actually looked for any resident candidates. It and remains a leap of faith to say the city needs residency exemptions.
In fact, petitions and outcry have shown that most city residents firmly believe that the city does not need residency exemptions at all, and that talent needed to fill any position can be found within the city, or at least outside the city in people willing to move in.
But it could be possible to create a law-based exemption system that would satisfy Mayor Palmer’s false calls – but not his real desires – while keeping politics out of decisions over which employees must abide by residency and which do not, which is what precipitated the recent crisis of leadership over residency.
That could be accomplished through the city’s adoption of provisions of state residency law that lay out a lengthy, politics-free process through which positions are exempted.
City Council could adopt an ordinance amendment that requires a diligent, months-long search for candidates living or willing to live in Trenton.
If that process is completed without finding any suitable candidates, it would be followed by a weighting of outside candidates, based upon concentric proximity to Trenton. Candidates given the highest priority would be those living in adjacent towns, then those in the rest of Mercer County, then those living in counties contiguous with Mercer, and finally candidates living in New Jersey.
In all likelihood, such a thorough and documented search would reveal the opposite of what the Palmer administration has been telling us about a lack of qualified candidates living in Trenton.
And even there were no qualified candidates inside Trenton, the candidates closest to Trenton would be the first to get the job, rather than a preferred candidate like Mr. Santiago, who resides in faraway Morris County.
Providing for such an ordinance amendment would immediately quiet Mayor Palmer and any others clamoring for a residency exemption, while making decisions on which positions get exempted free of the political interference that often characterizes the public policy of the Palmer administration.
In essence, Mayor Palmer would get what he is publicly asking for without getting what he really wants: the ability to decide which employees must abide by residency. That would be reserved for the process laid out by the state and adopted by City Council, which has lately proven itself to be a more worthy instrument of the public interest.
The city would be left with a good residency safety valve in the unlikely event that homegrown talent cannot be found to fill an employment position, with little likelihood of handpicked Palmer appointees of dubious value ever entering into the picture.
Again, the city wins, and political panderers like Mayor Palmer lose.