Residency Requirements for Local Government Officials and Appointees
Must an elected official or a voluntary board member reside in the municipality they serve? What about the appointed city manager or county administrator — do they need to live in the jurisdiction for which they work? This blog will look at these questions and touch on how to fill the position if an elected official moves out of the municipality, causing a vacancy.
City and town councilmembers, county commissioners, and special purpose district commissioners must be residents and legally registered voters of the city, town, county or district they serve. See MRSC’s publication Getting Into Office for more information.
To be a legally registered voter, the elected official must maintain a permanent residence in the precinct in which they are registered. See RCW 29A.08.010(2). "Residence" in this context means "a person's permanent address where they physically reside and maintain their abode." See RCW 29A.04.151.
An elective office becomes vacant when an elected official ceases to be a legally registered voter of the municipality (or, for those jurisdictions with districts or wards, when they are no longer a legally registered voter of the district/ward they represent). See RCW 42.12.010(4).
Therefore, once an individual moves out of the jurisdictional boundaries of the municipality they serve, unless that move is truly temporary, they are no longer qualified to serve on the governing body of that municipality.
Is the Move Temporary or Permanent?
The issue of residency is a factual one, and the primary question is whether an individual intended to abandon an old residence and establish a new permanent residence elsewhere. An individual may only have one permanent residence at any one time (an individual’s voter registration may only be assigned to one permanent residence). So, while each factual scenario would have to be reviewed independently, as a general matter, unless the individual establishes residency outside of the municipality and registers to vote at that new residence (which clearly shows an intent to abandon their old residence), they would still be eligible to hold their position.
For a good discussion of what constitutes legal residency see In Re Contested Election of Schoessler. This case involved a challenge that the code city mayor of Wenatchee did not meet the requirement of having been a resident of the city for at least one year preceding the mayoral election, which is required by RCW 35A.12.030. The court held that the mayor did not meet the Wenatchee residency requirement because his utility bills, driver’s license, voter registration, tax form, insurance forms and other similar records all showed a Malaga address. The court also found that, although the mayor was seen emerging from the computer file server room at his Wenatchee-based office on several mornings during the time in question (implying that he was somehow living in the room), this was not sufficient to meet the residency requirement.
Would any of the following four scenarios cause the elected official to lose their residency?
1. A councilmember has permanently moved to a house just outside the city limits.
Yes. This individual has permanently moved outside of the city and no longer has a city residence. They can no longer serve in their city councilmember position.
2. A county commissioner’s house is being remodeled and they have rented a home in a neighboring county for six months, while the remodel takes place.
No. In addition to a physical move, there also must be an intent to discontinue or abandon their residence in the county. Here, there is no intent to abandon the house within the county; this temporary absence would not result in the elected official losing county residency.
3. A city councilmember is employed by a company with offices all over the world and she has been temporarily assigned to work on a project in Europe for the next three years. She will be moving to Europe for three years but is keeping her home in the city where she serves as councilmember and is not planning to change her voter registration. During the three years she is in Europe, she will attend city council meetings remotely. City policy allows a councilmember to attend meetings remotely, without limit.
No. While the longer the absence, the more likely a court would find establishment of a new residency, there is no black and white rule about how long the elected official can reside out of the jurisdiction which they represent. In this scenario, the councilmember intends to return to the city, she is still registered to vote at her city residence, and she will continue her councilmember duties. This move does appear temporary; therefore, she has not lost her city residency.
4. A water-sewer district commissioner owns two homes: one within the district boundaries and one outside of the boundaries. He won’t disclose which residence he considers to be his permanent residence, but he spends more than half his time at the home which lies outside of district boundaries.
More facts are needed in this scenario. Here is how we cover this issue on our Vacancies in Local Elected Offices webpage:
If an official owns or rents more than one place, then it becomes a question of which place the official considers to be their primary residence. The official’s intent can be established by both direct and indirect evidence. In terms of direct evidence, it is simple enough to ask the official which location they consider to be their permanent residence. For indirect evidence, look at the address the official uses on their voter registration, driver’s license, tax records, children’s school enrollment forms, memberships in public parks and recreation programs, utility bills, and similar documents.
Is Removal Automatic?
Removal from an elected position due to no longer meeting the residency requirement is not automatic. If the elected official concurs that they are no longer a resident of the municipality, a vacancy occurs, and the municipality fills the vacancy accordingly.
If the elected official denies they have moved and refuses to give up their position, then a court would need to decide the matter. The court would evaluate similar evidence as was reviewed in the In Re Contested Election of Schoessler case — such as the address the official used for voter registration, utility bills, and similar documents — and then it would make a determination as to residency.
Advisory Boards, Commissions, and Committees
While state law sets forth some membership requirements for advisory boards, commissions, and committees, it is usually silent on residency requirements. (With some important exceptions, including civil service commission members who must be electors of the county in which they reside.)
In most cases, cities and counties are free to adopt local policies addressing residency for their advisory boards, commissions, and committees. Given that these boards are advising the governing body on local policy matters affecting individual cities and counties, requiring residency in the city or county may make sense. For example, Mercer Island requires that all members of boards and commissions be current city residents (except for certain design commission members). Similarly, only county residents may serve on a Kittitas County board or commission (unless waived by the Board of County Commissioners).
City/County Managers and Administrators and Special Purpose District Directors
Residency requirements for county managers and administrators are set forth in county charters and county codes; state law has no residency requirement for that position.
Similarly, residency requirements for appointed special purpose administrators will be driven by local policy, not state law.
In today’s remote work environment, anyone elected or appointed to a city, county, or special purpose district position needs to know whether their position requires they remain a resident of the municipality during their term of service. This blog answers those questions, but if you are an eligible MRSC customer and have more questions on this topic, reach out to us at Ask MRSC.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.