COLUMBUS - An appellate court yesterday unanimously sided with cities in their battle against the state over whether municipal employees must live in the cities for which they work.
The three-judge panel of the Lima-based 3rd District Court of Appeals struck down a 2006 state law prohibiting cities from requiring their workers to live where they draw their taxpayer-funded paychecks.
In ruling on a challenge brought by Lima, the panel became the first appeals court to weigh in on whether lawmakers overstepped their constitutional authority by enacting a law restricting cities' home-rule authority.
The decision reverses an Allen County Common Pleas Court ruling upholding the law, and conflicts with other lower court rulings across the state triggered by challenges brought by Toledo, Cleveland, Dayton, and Akron.
The ruling applies only to the 17 counties under the 3rd District's jurisdiction, among them Allen, Defiance, Hancock, Henry, Paulding, Putnam, Sen-eca, and Van Wert in northwest Ohio.
Some 125 cities and 13 villages statewide had some sort of residency requirement at the time of the law's passage.
The ruling means the feud between the state and its cities may soon head for the Ohio Supreme Court.
Assistant Attorney General Frank Strigari said he was still reviewing the decision but saw no reason why the state would not appeal.
"Eight courts in Ohio have addressed this question, and all eight reached conclusions contrary to the 3rd District," he said. His boss, Attorney General Marc Dann, voted for the law while in the Ohio Senate.
Lima City Attorney Tony Geiger said that, for now, Lima employees must comply with the city's residency requirement, but the city will not take disciplinary action against those who don't comply until the dispute is finally resolved.
The city of Toledo continues to follow its residency rules while its own challenge is pending in the 6th District Court of Appeals. It lost its case at the Lucas County Common Pleas Court stage.
"It's no great venture to say that ultimately this will be decided by the Supreme Court," said Adam Loukx, Toledo's chief counsel.
"For the benefit of everyone who is affected by the issue one way or the other, sooner is better."
Judge John Willamowski, one of the three jurists on the all-Republican 3rd District panel, had also voted against the bill while a member of the Ohio House.
"I'm not surprised by the ruling based on who I saw on the panel," said Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland), the law's sponsor.
"I respectfully believe that they are incorrect as a matter of law, but we said from the outset that it would take the Ohio Supreme Court to rule on this. I'm confident they will uphold it because the Ohio Constitution gives the legislature unfettered authority to set standards for public employees, including municipal employees."
The 3rd District ruled that the state did not have an "overriding state interest" in passing a law affecting city employee residency.
"[T]here is no constitutional right to choose where one lives and, at the same time, demand employment from an unwilling employer," wrote Judge Vernon Preston.
"So the state's interest in prohibiting political subdivisions from passing residency restrictions is not an 'overriding' one. On the other hand, Lima's interest in establishing residency as a qualification of employment is substantial."
Lima had argued that requiring municipal employees to live in the city leads to a more dedicated work force, keeps employees close by to respond to emergencies, and supports the local economy.
Although it negated existing residency requirements, the state left the door open for local ballot issues to enact requirements that city employees live in either the home county or an adjacent county.
In recent years, Toledo has eroded some of its residency restrictions through collective bargaining.
Currently, employees with 10 or more years of service may have the rule waived.
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