“The Charter Committee’s job is to make recommendations to the city council about any proposed changes that they may discern after reviewing the charter and hearing from the citizens of Omaha,” said Stephen Pedersen, Charter Committee member.
Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 3, saw the last meeting of the city’s Charter Committee. Approximately every 10 years, the Mayor’s office and the City Council nominate a group of people to the City’s Charter Committee.
Pedersen explained the City Charter is like the Constitution of our city.
A last-minute amendment
Approximately 24 hours before the final meeting of the Charter Committee, one of the committee members, Steve Grasz, proposed an amendment to the charter under the auspices of the protection of religious freedoms and liberty.
“Part of the effect of which would have been to allow any Christian person to avoid compliance with the city’s recently passed amendment to the non-discrimination ordinance protecting members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) community here in Omaha,” Pedersen explained.
Additionally, Pedersen said the amendment would have also impacted a woman’s reproductive rights and potentially the type of healthcare that could be provided to her at a hospital or clinic.
“I don’t want to get too positional about it but the context of it was such that based on people who came and spoke in favor of it and opposition to it, they were clearly talking about the amendment to our city’s non-discrimination ordinance,” Pedersen said.
He said both sides were well represented at the meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Both sides had speakers who spoke very passionately and thoughtfully about their support of or opposition to Mr. Grasz’ amendment.
Then Pedersen said there were individuals on each side of the issue who perhaps did not speak as eloquently or as rationally on the amendment.
“And certainly on the side in favor of the amendment, there were folks who – in my view as an individual – were a great example as to why we needed an amendment to our city’s non-discrimination ordinance to protect our LGBT citizens,” he said.
Ultimately, the amendment failed to pass. After taking a vote that same Tuesday night, seven voted in favor of the amendment, 11 were opposed and there were three abstentions.
A city divided?
Pedersen does feel that Omaha is fairly divided on this issue. He explained it’s an emotional issue for people on both sides and understandably so.
“I don’t think everyone who supports an amendment like that is a bigot or is in any way overtly or intentionally prejudiced or discriminatory and that they believe that their religious rights trump the rights of our LGBT citizens with regard to employment and the other areas of non-discrimination addressed in the amendment to our city ordinance,” said Pedersen.
There is no doubt in Pedersen’s mind that this issue will return, whether it is in the form of a petition drive or in the form of pressure on city council members.
When asked what he thought this vote says about the City of Omaha keeping up with the times, Pedersen responded, “Well, it failed, which to me says we are on the right side of history and civility.”
Sometimes failure equals success
Pedersen said he thinks the committee’s most significant accomplishments were the things they decided not to approve rather than the amendments that passed.
“Speaking personally, the failure of Mr. Grasz’ amendment is significant. The failure of an amendment to remove civil service protection from the fire chief is significant. (That was a proposed amendment to essentially make the fire chief an employee at-will who serves at the pleasure of the mayor). It’s significant that a proposed amendment to lower the percentage thresholds for petitions and referendums failed,” Pedersen said.
He said the proposed amendment regarding petitions and referendums was also proposed by Grasz but was unsuccessful for the same reasons that the religious freedom amendment did not succeed.
“Despite all of the debate and discussion last night – particularly on Grasz’ amendment – as least as it relates to the committee members and certainly as it relates to the citizens who came and voiced their opinions, there were no minds that were changed last night. The views of the committee members and the views of the citizens who participated in the meeting last night were set in stone well before last night’s debate and discussion,” he said.
A few significant amendments that were approved by the Charter Committee included:
- Adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city employment anti-discrimination clause
- Changing the definition of the Power of the City to give the city more flexibility for government operations
- Allowing for a biennial budget
Minutes of the Charter Committee, agendas and the committee roster are available online at cityofomaha.org.