By Bob Bauder
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
PITTSBURGH — An arbitration panel's ruling that Pittsburgh police officers should be allowed to live outside the city drew fire from leaders and residents who say voters have decided the issue.
"I think it is a sign that the arbitration process is broken," said City Council President Bruce Kraus, who testified for the city in the hearing.
Voters in November overwhelmingly approved requiring police officers and all other city employees to live in the city, but the police union has a stipulation in its contract that permits arbitration on the issue, union lawyer Bryan Campbell said.
State legislators in 2012 overturned a law with the residency requirement. The new law permitted, but did not require, cities to lift residency requirements, prompting Councilman Ricky Burgess to propose the voter referendum.
The ruling, announced on Thursday but not released because it remains in draft form, permits police officers to live up to 25 air miles from the City-County Building, Downtown, said Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.
Campbell represented the union on the panel, Downtown attorney Joseph Quinn represented the city, and John Skonier was a neutral party supplied by the American Arbitration Association.
Mayor Bill Peduto said an appeal is possible.
"There's obviously an option for the city to appeal just as the police would have appealed had it gone the other way," he told reporters gathered in the mayor's conference room.
The ruling triggered speculation that it could weaken political power of the union. "If police are moving out of the city and they have less members who reside in the city, then theoretically that's less clout with city government," said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist.
Other political experts said they doubted that the ruling would sap power from Democrats, who have a 5-1 edge in voter registration in the city over Republicans.
"The old adage and the old line of thinking was they could be identified as a political bloc," said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh. "I don't know any organization can deliver a bloc of votes as it did in the past under machine politics."
LaPorte said police officers fear retaliation against their children in Pittsburgh Public Schools, among other things, in opposing the residency requirement. The union argues that it limits Pittsburgh's ability to recruit new officers.
"I think what this ruling does is it affords the city of Pittsburgh an opportunity to get the best candidates for the position of police officer," he said.
If the ruling stands, he said, some officers with children will likely move. But LaPorte, who has young children, said there won't be a major exodus.
"I'm not going anywhere," he said.
Janice White of Stanton Heights, where numerous police officers live, said she likes having them in the neighborhoods they serve. "If they move outside the neighborhood, they disconnect from the city," she said.
T. Rashad Byrdsong, president and founder of the Community Empowerment Association in Homewood, said the community group designed to improve the lives of black city residents has lobbied city officials to preserve the residency requirement.
"How can you understand the culture and dynamics and the people if you don't have any type of relationship with them?" he asked.
"If the police officers want to move into the suburbs, perhaps they should get jobs in the areas where they live."
Allegheny County police officers and sheriff's deputies are required to live in the county, said Sheriff Bill Mullen and police Superintendent Charles Moffatt.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has been meeting with Peduto on issues of shared importance, said he has gone "back and forth" on whether the requirement is a good thing but would support any decision that council and the mayor make.
"In some ways, you can understand why it's important to have people who live in the community serve the community," Fitzgerald said.
Copyright 2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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