Solicitor nominee grilled over city residency

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Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess is asking Mayor Bill Peduto to withdraw his nomination for solicitor, raising questions about whether the nominee, Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, satisfies the city's requirement that employees live within its limits.

Ms. Sanchez-Ridge has been serving as the city's acting chief legal officer and solicitor since Mr. Peduto was sworn into office earlier this month, but her position must be confirmed by council.

Wednesday, during her public interview, council members repeatedly questioned her living situation because her husband still resides in Upper St. Clair so that her daughter, a high school senior, can finish school there.

Later, Mr. Burgess sent a letter to Mr. Peduto outlining his concerns and asking for outside legal counsel to weigh in on the issue.

The Peduto administration flatly rejected the request and called the criticism an inappropriate attack on the nominee's family. Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto's chief of staff, said that if Mr. Burgess wanted an outside legal opinion, he could pay for it himself.

Ms. Sanchez-Ridge, a former federal prosecutor who most recently served as a white-collar criminal defense attorney, previously lived in Upper St. Clair but told council members she bought a condominium in the city and now lives there.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris probed further, asking where her family lived and taking her to task for not sending her daughter to a city school.

"My husband lives in Upper St. Clair with my child who is in high school," she responded, adding that she did not want to pull her daughter out of the district with so little time remaining in the school year. While she eats dinner with her family in Upper St. Clair, she returns to her home in Shadyside to sleep and spends weekends there. She said she was not sure if her family would move into the city when her daughter graduates high school.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith also raised concerns because Ms. Sanchez-Ridge is overseeing the Office of Municipal Investigations, which is charged with looking into accusations that a city employee isn't meeting the residency requirements. In the past, Ms. Kail-Smith said some city employees have managed to effectively live outside the city while listing a city address, sometimes of a blighted property. She lamented that the city has not been aggressive enough in investigating and terminating employees who violate the rule.

"How can you assure that you'll be able to oversee this and also set an example for the employees? I'm a little concerned that you'd be overseeing OMI," she said.

But Ms. Sanchez-Ridge countered that there would be no problem, because she does not view herself in violation of the code. She also said she knew of nothing in the city code that required her family to also live in the city.

"I believe that this city is worth living in and making it better," she said, "and that's what I'm doing."

Indeed, city code requires that city employees be "domiciled" in the city and does not spell out requirements beyond that. As a result of a recent referendum on the matter driven by Mr. Burgess, the requirement also was made a part of the home-rule charter. The councilman initiated the referendum -- which passed with 80 percent of the vote -- in response to a challenge from the police union to lift the prerequisite for residency.

Property records show Ms. Sanchez-Ridge and her husband's name on their Upper St. Clair home and for the Shadyside condominium they purchased in November.

Mr. Burgess said that even if her living situation passes legal muster, it violates "the spirit" of the law. He said he otherwise found the mayor's nominee to be highly qualified for the job.

"We want our families to live in the city and participate in city life," he said.


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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