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City of Ontario is ‘prepared to face’ litigation

Residency requirement could mean police officer’s job

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City of Ontario is ‘prepared to face’ litigation

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown, right, presents a plaque to Ontario Police Lt. Jason Cooper, for serving as interim police chief in July of 2019, as Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero watches. The city will face possible litigation over potentially firing a police officer for not meeting the city's residency requirements set for employees in February of 2018.

ONTARIO — The City of Ontario could be facing litigation over its residency requirements as the status of a union employee hangs in the balance over an ordinance enacted by the City Council in 2018. 

If terminated for not living within the established boundary, he would be the first to be let go by the city for such a reason.

An impromptu gathering at City Hall during a meeting on Tuesday night brought the issue to the surface when so many citizens showed up to comment about it that Ontario Mayor Riley Hill had to limit public comment. Some spoke on behalf of the employee possibly facing termination for not living here, Ontario Police Officer Sam D’Addabbo. Some citizens also spoke in support of upholding the city’s policy.

During public comment, D’Addabbo had a chance to speak and was asked by City Councilor Dan Capron whether he was ever informed of the policy. D’Addabbo said it was first disclosed to him during his job interview with the chief.

Ontario Ordinance Officer Dallas Brockett, who lives in Nyssa, showed up in plain clothes to offer his input on the residency requirement.

“I feel the residency rule is unconstitutional,” he said, citing the 14th Amendment.

D’Addabbo, who lives in Idaho, also cited the 14th Amendment, stating to his knowledge that “no other law enforcement agency has this requirement.”

The officer made an emotional plea to the council to revisit the ordinance stating that he puts his “life on the line for the community.”

Chris Bolyard, president of Ontario Police Association, the city’s union for its police officers, also spoke during public comment.

“We live in a country that values freedom,” he stated.

Bolyard is against the city’s rule to “force people to move” somewhere that is not their choice. He also says the requirement makes the available pool of applicants smaller, citing a recent example where only three applicants applied for two positions.

Bil Carter, a previous part-time ordinance officer, stated that the cost of living and the salary were not in balance.

He also pointed out that the city had already paid for D’Addabbo’s training, asking why then they would they want to fire him?

Some officers shared sentiments about not wanting to live in the communities they respectively work in.

Others, including citizen Ben Peterson, supported the city upholding Resolution 2018-112. He floated the idea of the residency requirement to the City Council in February of 2018.

Union lawyer reaches out to council

According to documents obtained by The Argus Observer, a lawyer representing the Ontario Police Association reached out to City Council members on Nov. 17. This was done via email in an attempt to reiterate the union’s concerns over the matter of the city’s decision to potentially fire an employee for non-compliance with the rule. The email references a letter from the city’s Human Resources department regarding the employee not living within the required boundary, which mirrors the Ontario 8C School District boundary. 

The email also includes an attachment of concerns over the residency requirement sent to City Manager Adam Brown by the union in 2018 when it had learned it was included in a city job posting in July of that year. 

That letter sent to Brown in October of 2018 from the union states that “we strongly object” to the enforcement of the resolution for “numerous reasons.” Some of these include “a smaller pool of qualified candidates;” “financial onus” for the requirement; “dissension” between those employees required to live here and those grandfathered into the rule who do not; and the Janus U.S. Supreme Court ruling, decided in June of 2018. 

The latter of these concerns referenced public-sector union employees’ rights to participate in political interests outside of the residence area. 

Brown did not answer an email request regarding whether he ever reached out to the council after receiving the letter to inform them of a possible challenge with the resolution.

Both the union and Jack Orchard, a private attorney at law, cite an example of how this could be a violation of those rights.

The union in its letter to Brown cites an example of a City of Ontario employee living in Nyssa, who was elected to serve on a school board there based on his residency. It suggests the city’s rule may prevent that person from participating in a political subdivision of their choice by causing them to move. It also points to the “microcosm” of the Western Treasure Valley with varying political viewpoints in each state. 

Furthermore, the letter states that according to the Janus ruling, forcing someone who lives in Idaho to move to Oregon could be “construed as illegally binding an employee in area politics that the employee has chosen not to be involved in.” 

Orchard’s example provided to the Argus was similar, but he presented other possible challenges for potential employees to meet residency requirements. These challenges include suitable housing needs and disruption for children who are half-way through high school in one city due to having to move to another school.

The issue may go well beyond union contracts, Orchard says. 

“It’s a fundamental issue. Can you condition public employment on a person living in a certain geographic area?”

Enforcing the residency rule could also cause the city to “run into some interesting divergence between government agencies,” Orchard says.

He also asks whether someone commuting 10 minutes made a difference.

According to the letter sent to Brown from the union, it does not. Many examples of community involvement by members of the Ontario Police Department who do not live here were cited.

These included participating in a host of organizations, including the Boys & Girls Club of the Western Treasure Valley, The Elks, and the Malheur Housing Authority.

“Our officers believe that our society is moving beyond what ‘community’ used to mean. … Employees do not need to live in Ontario to love Ontario and want to see Ontario thrive,” the letter reads.  

With the potential of a school district boundary shift on the horizon between Ontario and Nyssa, it is unclear how that might impact the city’s residency requirements moving forward, and whether people who lived within those areas at the time that boundary was established will be grandfathered in or ruled out as potential future employees of the city. 

How we got here

Peterson, who brought the issue of residency up to the council early last year, had also proposed a similar policy for the Ontario 8C School District in May of 2015, but it ultimately failed. 

Peterson’s recommendation to the city was to require future “administrative” staff hired on by the city to live in city limits, not “rank and file” employees. He also recommended incentivizing current employees not living in the city, to move to Ontario.

The city ultimately passed the residency rule in February of 2018, but it was not exclusively for administrative staff. 

The resolution requires department head positions, not contracted out, to live within the city limits (or to move within those boundaries by six months from their hire date). Furthermore, the resolution requires any existing city employees who are promoted to those positions to move into that boundary within 12 months, or risk termination of their employment. The resolution also stipulates that future city employees are required to live within the 8C School District within six months of being hired.

It should be noted that the City Manager, Police Chief, and Fire Chief are already required to live within the city boundaries by City Charter.

The law also incentivizes current city employees to move within the boundary area by offering a water/sewer credit of up to $50 per month for those city employees paying for those services from the City of Ontario.

What’s next?

It is not known when the city will make a decision regarding D’Addabbo’s employment; however none was made last night after the city met in executive session to discuss the matter.

As to whether the city plans to revisit the ordinance since it was written before the Supreme Court Janus ruling which protects First Amendment rights of union employees throughout the nation, Brown had wrote the following in an email this morning.

“No action was taken after the closed session, which means that the city does not intend to change its residency policy, and is prepared to face whatever next steps that means with regard to litigation.”

A request for an estimated cost for the city if it loses a wrongful termination suit, was not returned.

Brown told council members in an email exchange that there will likely be another employee who will face the same fate over residency rules. 

Griffin Hewitt contributed to this story.

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