A lawsuit, a pandemic and politics collided Tuesday afternoon when the Omaha City Council passed a new ordinance that would give councilors and the mayor the last word in emergency health decisions.
The Douglas County Health Director—who also serves as the city’s health director—is now required to present any proposed health mandates to the mayor. The mayor can then reject or approve them, and the City Council would either uphold or reverse the mayor’s decision at the next regular meeting.
The current health director, Lindsay Huse, spoke in opposition to the ordinance during last week’s public hearing. Huse warned that public health would be politicized, and the quick decisions necessary for responding to epidemics would be slowed down.
Councilmember Vinny Palermo said he introduced the ordinance to resolve issues raised by the state’s lawsuit against the city for this year’s mask mandate, which ended in February. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has argued that Huse didn’t have the authority to issue the mandate without approval from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
“If we don’t get rid of the lawsuit, it really doesn’t matter what your heart says, and how knowledgeable you are and what you believe in,” Palermo said. “If the decisions are made and they’re taken away from us locally, because I believe that’s the way the lawsuit is headed, it won’t matter what you decide to do for the citizens of Omaha.”
Petersen announced he would drop the lawsuit Wednesday morning, and said the ordinance creates more accountability for citizens.
The original ordinance would have created a new position to take over when the health director identified an epidemic. Palermo amended it to remove that position, and then amended it again to resolve some issues the law department identified with the ordinance’s language.
The ordinance was approved 5-2, with Councilmember Juanita Johnson joining Council President Pete Festersen in voting no. Festersen said the language in the ordinance left some things unclear, like whether or not decisions could be amended by the City Council. City Attorney Matt Kuhse said they would not have the authority, but Festersen said it was ambiguous.
“I do think it’s better than where we started, so I’m glad we’ve been having these conversations,” Festersen said. “But I just think there are a lot of issues still outstanding on it, and I don’t think we’ve gotten it completely right.”
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also met Tuesday to allocate funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The board allocated $400,000 to Mental Health Care
Coordination for Older Adults Initiative to provide mental health care and language services to immigrants over the age of 50.
“It’s quite the comprehensive program that will do a lot of good for the seniors in our community,” Commissioner Roger Garcia said.
The board also allocated $50,000 to Food Bank for the Heartland for a fresh produce purchasing program, $50,000 for mental health consulting for families of special education students, $50,000 to Banisters Leadership Academy to deal with youth violence, and $200,000 to support tourism in Douglas County.