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Legislature votes to allow St. Louis firefighters to live outside city; officials may go to court

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2010 - St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's administration is furious, and the firefighters union is pleased, over the Missouri Legislature's approval today of a measure that eases the city's residency rules for its firefighters.

The measure also bars city voters from overruling the state's action.

Slay's chief of staff Jeff Rainford said the city will consider possible legal action, should Gov. Jay Nixon sign the bill into law.

At issue isn't so much the residency issue, Rainford said, but who has the power to act on it.

"Our position has always been that only one group can decide this issue, and that's the voters of St. Louis," he said, citing provisions of the city charter. "It's their rights that are being violated."

Slay, who is out of the country, posted on his blog a statement contending, "The measure is a direct attack on the city’s charter, without any say from the citizens of St. Louis."

The mayor, Rainford added, had long supported putting the matter of firefighters' residency before city voters.

But city firefighter Christopher Molitor, president of Local 73 of the International Association of Firefighters, said the union has worked for years -- without success -- to win the right for city firefighters to reside outside the city.

"We're very pleased they passed the bill," Molitor said, adding that lawyers have told the union that the measure is on solid legal ground.

The bill OKed by the state House today, and previously approved by the Senate, allows St. Louis firefighters to reside outside the city after they have been employed by the city for seven years. That's identical to the residency rules now governing the city's police officers.

The chief justification in the bill, and cited by Molitor, is St. Louis' troubled public school system.

Molitor noted that the St. Louis Board of Aldermen earlier rejected a bill to allow a citywide vote on the firefighters residency issue. But he also acknowledged that the legislative route was deemed easier than a citywide vote.

A charter change requires approval of 60 percent of the city voters, he said.

City voters had previously rejected police officers' bid to reside outside the the city. That change also was made by the Legislature.

But Rainford emphasized that the St. Louis Police Department is officially governed by the state of Missouri, under an arrangement in place for 150 years. That's not the case for city firefighters.

If the Legislature can overrule the city's charter regarding the firefighters, they "can run the city of St. Louis," Rainford added. "They can come over and get the keys."

He added that he thought it was hypocritical for Missouri legislators to vote overwhelmingly to overrule City Hall when it came to city firefighters, when the Legislature's leaders have for some time decried federal actions that they viewed as infringing on state's rights.

Rainford cited the Legislature's approval earlier this week of a ballot proposal that seeks to block some of new federal health-care mandates.

Slay asserted on his blog that "residents of every charter city in Missouri can expect to have state legislators picking and choosing through the provisions of their charters."

The chief sponsor of the firefighters' bill is state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, who is at odds with Slay over several issues.

The wording of the final bill states:

"Currently, upon approval of the board of aldermen, a fire department employee shall not be required to live within the department boundaries if the only public school district in the area has been unaccredited or provisionally accredited in the last five years of the person's employment.

"Under this act, no employee who has worked for the department for seven years shall be required to live within the department boundaries if the only public school district in the area has been unaccredited or provisionally accredited in the last five years of the person's employment. Employees who have satisfied the seven-year requirement and who choose to reside outside the department boundaries shall reside within a one-hour response time.

"The act removes the provision allowing the voters of St. Louis city to prevent the enactment of these provisions in the city, and requiring the employees of the city to forfeit 1 percent of their salaries in order to reside outside of the city."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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