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Baltimore City Council To Vote on Local Jobs Bill

P. Kenneth Burns

The Baltimore City Council is expected to approve a bill to require some city contractors to reserve a majority of jobs for city residents Monday.  This will be in spite of an opinion from the office of law saying the bill would be seen as unconstitutional if challenged in court. In an opinion issued earlier this year, the city solicitor’s office called a hiring preference based on residence “legally indefensible.” 

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Jack Young, sponsor of the bill, told "The Daily Record" that “the Law Department should spend its energies trying to strengthen the law instead of throwing its hands up and saying it doesn’t work.”

The bill would apply to businesses with city contracts worth more than $300,000 and to contractors who have received at least $5 million in benefits for a city subsidized project.  They would have to ensure 51 percent of the jobs available under those agreements go to city residents.

Supporters of the bill point to Boston where a residential requirement was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983.  Opponents point to Quincy, Massachusetts, south of Boston, where a federal district court judge struck down a similar law in January.  Northeastern University law professor Peter Enrich says that the real difference between the two cases is that the court looked at two different constitutional provisions.

The Boston law was challenged under the commerce clause – which reserves the power to regulate interstate commerce to congress.  The Quincy law was challenged under the privileges and immunities clause – which says states cannot favor their own citizens over those from out of state.  “The commerce clause doesn’t apply when a city is simply trying to control how it conducts its own activities, its own purchasing of buildings or construction,” Enrich said.

In the Quincy case, however, the city has to meet a very high standard “to justify having a discriminatory preference,” Enrich said echoing the opinion from the solicitor’s office. The City of Quincy is appealing the judge’s decision for its hiring law which has been on the books since the 1980s.  City spokesman Christopher Walker says that it was revised in 2010 to clarify the requirement for contactors to make a third of the jobs available for Quincy residents and to offer a paid apprenticeship program for residents to get trained for required tasks.  The lawsuit was filed while the city was receiving bids for a $30 million school construction project.

“[It] would not surprise us if larger cities that do have residents’ preferences - and many of them do – are targeted with these sorts of legal actions,” says Walker.

Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott (D) hopes that the city can avoid similar lawsuits while addressing unemployment.  “We have to get more people in the city that are ready and willing to work, back to work; that’s the number one goal,” he said, “It’s going to be a process that we’re all going to have to work through.”

Baltimore City’s unemployment rate is at 9.4 percent; the highest in Central Maryland according to federal figures from April.  When compared to the rest of the state, only three Eastern Shore counties – Dorchester, Somerset and Worcester - have higher rates.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D) says the bill will allow the city to put some of its residents back to work. “We have to be direct in our desire to have local people hired when we’re spending our local money on contracts.  That’s what it really comes down to,” she says. 

She adds that the bill also will help city some of its money back through income taxes.