Court reverses arbitration ruling, says Pittsburgh police must live in city

Pittsburgh Police

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court reversed a 2014 ruling that said city police officers could live outside city limits in a 4-3 decision on Thursday.

The court’s decision would revert the residency rule back to the city’s Home Rule Charter, which requires all city employees to live within city limits (section 711), and would throw out the arbitration panel’s ruling that required police officers to live within 25 miles of the City-County Building. That 25-mile radius would’ve permitted officers to live outside the city and even outside Allegheny County, in places such as Beaver or Washington, Pa.

However, Thursday’s decision may not provide the final answer on this issue because the city’s police union, Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that it plans to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The requirement for city employees to live within city limits goes back to 1902, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This case started with a 2012 law, Act 195, passed by the state Legislature that said the city “may” require police to be city residents, instead of saying they “shall” be residents.

Roughly 80 percent of city residents approved a Home Rule Charter amendment that required city employees to live in the city in a 2013 referendum vote.

But then there was a 2014 arbitration panel that decided on the 25-mile radius for police officers.

The case was argued in April before the Commonwealth Court, which is an appellate court that primarily hears cases involving local or state governments and agencies.

Writing for the majority, Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter explained that the voters’ amendment to the Home Rule Charter “has the force and status of an enactment of the General Assembly.” By doing so, the voters took away the city’s ability to negotiate residency requirements with the union. If the city had followed the arbitrator’s 2014 ruling, it would’ve violated its own charter. One remedy, Leadbetter wrote, would’ve been if the Legislature had passed a bill prohibiting any city from imposing a residency requirement.

Leadbetter was joined by judges Dan Pellegrini, Bernard McGinley and Mary Hannah Leavitt in the majority.

In dissent, Judge Robert Simpson sees inconsistencies in the majority decision because collective bargaining rights in Act 111 guarantee the right of police and firefighters to negotiate the terms of their employment while the city’s charter wouldn’t allow them to negotiate over residency.

In the Home Rule Charter Law, statutes that are applicable to any city in Pennsylvania, such as Act 111, supercede the Home Rule Charter. That would mean, Simpson wrote, that the rights of employees to negotiate would nullify the amendment in the city’s charter.

Simpson — who was joined by judges Kevin Brobson and Anne Covey in dissent —  also finds it “troublesome” that cities could use Home Rule Charter amendments in the future to gain an advantage in collective bargaining.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement: “The city respects the collective bargaining process. But residency and other workplace issues should be subject to good-faith negotiations and not made through back-door deals in Harrisburg. The people of Pittsburgh must have a seat at that table.”

The city has more than 3,000 employees, and more than 80 of them list their address outside city limits, according to 2015 city payroll data. Most of those people are located in Homestead and Munhall and nearly all work in the public safety department, which includes the police bureau.

Reach Eric Holmberg at 412-315-0266 or at eholmberg@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @holmberges.