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Ohio Supreme Court rules against residency rules

By STEPHEN MAJORS, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, June 10, 2009 (AP): A divided Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled against local government laws requiring employees to live within city limits.

The court ruled 5-2 that a 2006 state law forbidding residency requirements overrides local government home rule powers. The ruling overturns the decision by a state appeals court that the state law was unconstitutional because it trampled on local government rights.

Roughly 130 Ohio cities and villages have some form of a residency requirement that would be invalidated by the ruling. Parties to the case have 10 days to file a motion for reconsideration with the Ohio Supreme Court.

The cities of Akron and Lima, which already had residency laws on their books, challenged the constitutionality of the state law once it went into effect. They, along with Cleveland, said during oral arguments before the court in January that residency laws helped their tax base, maximized emergency services and made their workers more responsive to local concerns.

Unions representing local government employees sided with the state, saying the residency requirements discriminate against employees who may not be able to live within a city because of personal reasons, such as family constraints.

``For a long time, this has been an issue that we didn't feel was right that someone could be forced to live somewhere they don't want to,'' said Michael Watkins, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Lima. Police officers have been fighting residency requirements since Lima passed an ordinance in 2000 that requires new hires to live in the city.

Watkins said he thinks the rule has hurt the city's ability to hire qualified people for some positions because applicants are not always willing to move.

Lima Mayor David Berger said the court ruling ``gutted'' home rule for Ohio's cities.

``We want these people to be in our neighborhoods, to be in our churches,'' Berger said about the city's employees. ``We want those people to be a part of our community.''

Akron's law director echoed Berger's concerns. Max Rothal said the city was reviewing the ruling and had not made a decision to appeal, though he doubted the cities had grounds for a federal appeal.

Justice Paul Pfeifer, writing for the majority, said the Ohio Constitution's authorization of the Legislature to enact laws ``providing for the comfort, health, safety and general welfare of all employees'' overrode any other legal arguments, because such arguments _ including those for home rule powers _ would only erode the power granted to the Legislature.

Pfeifer's opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O'Connor, Terrence O'Donnell and Robert Cupp.

Justice Judith Lanzinger wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that the majority opinion gave too much power to the Legislature. She was joined by Chief Justice Thomas Moyer.

Lanzinger said state lawmakers' power to regulate the health and safety of employees referred only to the performance of their job duties, not to where they live during non-work hours.

The City of Cleveland, which established its residency law with a vote of its people in 1982, agreed with Lanzinger's take.

``This decision has given the legislature more authority than exists in the Ohio constitution,'' said Councilman Kevin Kelley. ``In doing so, the Court has diminished the ability of local elected officials to govern.''

Paul Hlynsky, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 representing about 460 Akron police officers, said his rank-and-file members were delighted with the ruling.

``We're thrilled, we're overjoyed,'' he said. ``There won't be any mass exodus of police officers. We feel that this will benefit police officer families. Our mayor touts regionalism all the time and here he is, trying to force people to live in the city.''

Associated Press Writers John Seewer in Toledo and Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.






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