Mob rule? Or B.S.?
A weeks-long debate over Wilmington residency requirements for non-elected city employees has deteriorated into what might generously be described as “frosty” exchanges between Mayor Mike Purzycki and a pair of Wilmington City Council members.
After a month of bitter debate, the 13-member council on Nov. 16 passed a five-year residency law for new hires that will continue to give preference to hiring city residents.
It also allows new hires a year to move into Wilmington (vs. six months previously), and establishes a residency assistance fund to help new hires afford housing.
The vote was 8-4, with three members voting “present” and one member failing to attend the vote.
Purzycki had been trying for more than a year to rescind the residency rule based on the City’s ongoing struggles to find qualified candidates willing to move to Wilmington for open positions.
Purzycki issued a scathing 1,328-word statement Nov. 27 to say that while he would not veto the bill, “the legislative process that unfolded was an embarrassment to this government [featuring] grandstanding, catcalling, badgering and political bullying.”
“There was never a sober debate about the merits of retaining residency,” said Purzycki, who is not running for re-election.
“The compromise ordinance that included New Castle County boundaries never even made it to the floor for a vote when one cowed member of Council failed to vote the ordinance out of committee,” the statement said. “The intimidating and uncontrolled mob that was encouraged to show up at the committee meeting and Council meetings literally scared members of Council into changing their votes.”
Bill sponsor Shane’ Darby responded in kind.
“I don’t care what the mayor or anyone else has to say for that matter. The people see and smell the BS! He can move back to being a Republican and move to the beach or something.”
Only five council members attended the Nov. 16 meeting in person with the rest participating virtually.
Darby was among those who voted for the resolution, including Vincent M. White, Zanthia Oliver, Michelle Harlee, Yolanda McCoy, Chris Johnson, Latisha Bracy and Council President Ernest “Trippi” Congo.
Council members Bregetta Fields, Nathan Field and James Spadola voted present. Maria Cabrera did not attend.
Al Mills voted no, which was no surprise because he earlier had proposed the city drop the requirement altogether.
Congo offered a slightly more measured response to Purzycki’s statement than Darby.
“I disagree with the misleading and disrespectful press release issued by Mayor Purzycki and feel it was uncalled for and extremely divisive,” he said.
Congo thanked Wilmington residents for “coming out in unprecedented numbers” to voice their concerns over the possibility of ending the current residency requirements for City of Wilmington employees.
“I do not believe that our residents deserve that from their elected officials,” he said.
The debate was ignited by an Oct. 16, 2023 press release by Purzycki that said the city is no longer enforcing what he called the “former” residency requirement because it was undermining the efficiency of city government.
“Former” in this case reflected Purzycki’s simmering impatience over the council’s reluctance to pass a less restrictive residency law after the General Assembly cleared the path in 2022 for changes to the City’s charter requested by city officials.
The release said the city has an authorized workforce of about 1,100 people but had more than 90 vacancies. A review of its Employment Opportunities webpage on Nov. 30 now shows 22 jobs, with 28 open positions.
Council members and city residents argued during the hearings there are plenty of Wilmington residents who would be happy to take the open jobs.
Purzycki has countered that the city is aggressively marketing those job openings to city residents, and that residents are either not interested or not qualified for the more technical positions.
As Purzycki noted, the law passed Nov. 16 did not include Bracy’s proposal to expand the residency requirement to include all of New Castle County. Her amendment was voted down 4-3 in committee.
“Requiring employees to live in the City for five years is not a serious policy decision, but rather a feel-good symbolic political gesture,” Purzycki said. “It is, in fact, a significant impediment to hiring with no long-term benefit to the public.”
He added that of I,296 Wilmington police officers, nearly one third live outside the City’s boundaries.
Purzycki said some uniformed officers nominally lived together in City apartments to meet the residency requirements while their families lived in Middletown.
“When we challenged this practice as not complying with the law, the unions appealed, and the courts ruled that the definition of residency is a matter for collective bargaining,” he said in his Nov. 29 statement.
Efforts were not successful to get comments from other council members, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer, and Gov. John Carney, who is considering a run for Purzycki’s job.
Peter Osborne is the former editor of the Delaware Business Times and a communications consultant.
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