The eighth city charter review convention in Omaha’s history ended on Monday, July 11. The group of appointed citizens charged with deciding new, high-level directions for Omaha’s future, proposed twenty-four policy recommendations for the Omaha City Council’s approval, most notably an amendment that would allow the Mayor to remain the Mayor while out of town for up to five days.
However, the convention raised questions about public transparency and accountability as it featured fewer appointed members than past conventions and started a year earlier than expected. None of the meetings also featured full attendance of the appointed citizens.
“I’m kind of disappointed, honestly, that this is happening this year,” said a community member, standing at the podium in the city’s legislative chambers during the convention’s last meeting. “I thought that the charter convention was gonna happen in 2023…I really wanted to participate during this, during the charter convention, but I thought it was going to be next year. I feel this has been rushed through.”
The convention, mandated by the city charter adopted by Omaha in 1956, was the second of Mayor Jean Stothert’s tenure. Stothert is now the first Mayor to have overseen two conventions, this time avoiding the 2013 drama of a failed proposal to change the city’s pension system. Stothert even threatened to call a second convention following that failure — though it didn’t happen.
Stothert did surprise many when, this past March, less than a year into her third term, she called for a city charter convention to convene in May, more than a year before a convention was required. Stothert’s said she wanted the charter’s proposals to be available for the city’s November 2022 ballot. Unlike the past three conventions, and five of the previous seven, which featured twenty-five members, this convention also would only have fifteen – eight appointed by the Mayor, seven recommended by the City Council.
Despite these departures from the norm — or, maybe because of them — the 2022 convention was a rather perfunctory affair.
“I was impressed with the level of commitment and passion the Convention members had on many topics,” wrote convention member Negil McPherson Jr., reflecting on the convention in an email to The Reader. “Whether in subcommittees or the large group, the Convention members listened…I will admit, I expected more members of the public (City of Omaha citizens) to show up and participate in this process.”
Although the convention considered a wide range of amendments to the city charter, from a suggestion that the Public Works Department be placed in charge of stormwater management, to a change in the residency requirement for City Council candidates, the convention went about its business in a polite, non-confrontational manner. Even a last-minute recommendation from convention member Andrew Prystai about adding gender and sexual orientation to the city’s list of protected classes generated little debate.
To be sure, the 2022 convention was a far cry from the 1973 edition, which, according to an Omaha World-Herald report at the time, saw a member of the public confront a convention member during a subcommittee meeting. That tiff eventually caused the public member’s mother to intervene on behalf of the convention member.
The 2022 convention also lacked the urgency of the 1987 “mini-charter review,” the last convention to feature fewer than twenty-five members, and which was called by Mayor Bernie Simon in part to examine mayoral succession procedures in light of the successful 1987 recall of Mayor Mike Boyle.
If anything, the 2022 convention highlighted how much of Omaha’s city charter process operates on a need-to-know basis.
According to the city charter, only Mayors can call conventions, and one must be held at least every ten years. The first convention was held in 1965, the second in 1973, the third in 1983. Because conventions were then held in 1993, 2003, and 2013, there seems to have been a general consensus amongst parts of the Omaha public that the next convention would be held in 2023.
The nonprofit One Omaha published a blog post this past February about the city charter review convention stating the process will have begun “By the end of 2023.”“I feel convention members did not have an opportunity to have an orientation and gathering where we would have been able to get to know each other,” wrote convention member Janet Bonet in mid-June in an email. “Résumés are not enough.”
The convention also featured spotty attendance by charter members. Several members missed multiple meetings and at none of the seven meetings were all fifteen in attendance.
“Appointees are expected to attend,” Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said in an email. Festersen’s own appointee, Rev. J. Scott Barker, missed four of the seven meetings. “It’s also true, however, that only the first date is an established date and then the body decides its own meeting schedule going forward and tries to complete its work within a couple of months so nobody knows all of the dates ahead of time.”
What is known for now is that the twenty-four amendments recommended by the charter convention will go to the Omaha City Council, who will then determine which, if any, amendments will be placed on the November 2022 election ballot for voter approval. Of special interest will be if the city council, whose president under the current city charter becomes acting mayor anytime the mayor leaves the city limits, will support the Mayor Stothert-backed proposal to allow the mayor to remain in that position while out of town for what could potentially be a whole work week.
It is one of several recommended amendments, in fact, that the city council will consider that deal with either city contingency plans or how the city operates during an emergency. One proposal, for instance, would relieve the city council from the requirement of meeting two times a month if Omaha is under a federal or state emergency. Another, the second-to-last proposal considered by the convention would add guidance to the charter about what to do if a “public disaster” ends the lives of the mayor and the entire city council.
As of now, according to the charter, there is no answer to that question.
Author Pete Fey is a writer and zine-maker. He was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and grew up in Omaha, where he now lives with his wife and cat. He holds an MFA from the University of Kansas, where he taught courses in the English department, and an MLIS from the University of Missouri.
Read his previous coverage of the 2022 city charter review convention for NOISE: Omaha Charter Convention Continues Tonight June 30th and Halfway Over, an Update on the Omaha City Charter Convention