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The Omaha City Council passed nine proposed city charter amendments to be placed on the November ballot Tuesday, Aug. 23, but one will be reconsidered and likely denied next week.

The city charter convention recommended two changes to Section 2.07 of the city charter, which details the role of the City Council President. The first change altered the process for determining if the Council President needs to take over due to the Mayor’s disability. The second would allow the Mayor to remain in power when out of town for up to five days. The City Council’s legislative committee initially chose not to vote on the latter proposal this year.

However, during Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Vinny Palermo made a motion to add the proposal as an amendment before the vote. Although Palermo went on to vote against it, the proposal passed 4-3.

“We have certainly heard loud and clear from constituents on how they feel about this and I know positively that the mayor wanted this to be discussed,” Palermo said.

Councilmember Danny Begley, who was the only Democrat on the City Council to vote in favor of the proposal, later told the Omaha World-Herald that his vote was a mistake. Begley said he’ll move for a reconsideration next week, and he intends to vote against it.

Mayor Jean Stothert has faced scrutiny for spending as much as a fifth of her time out of town in the past year. She has said that the proposal would modernize the city charter and that technology would allow her to perform her duties remotely.

The City Council tabled another proposal Tuesday. The city charter convention recommended adding “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” as protected classifications to Section 8.02, the section on civil rights. Fearing that the language may cause “unintended consequences,” Councilmember Brinker Harding moved to place the issue on file to vote again in 2024.

“I think we wanna make sure that people understand it is our intent to advance this onto a ballot at some point,” Harding said. “It just needs to have further discussion, further vetting, further input, more eyes on it so that the word can be the correct wording.”

The City Council’s legislative committee decided to split up the city charter convention’s 24 recommendations between this year’s ballot and the spring and fall ballots in 2024. Although the change to Section 8.02 was intended for this year, the City Council chose Tuesday to give the law department more time to perfect the language. 

City Attorney Matt Kuhse said the language could potentially affect other city ordinances, and the official definitions for gender identity and sexual orientation may need to be updated. 

Omaha’s LGBTQ community is still guaranteed protection from discrimination in the workplace either way thanks to a 2012 city ordinance. Although Mayor Stothert voted against the ordinance as a city councilmember, Chief of Staff Tom Warren said during pre-council that she supports the city charter amendment. 

Councilmembers Harding and Aimee Melton also added an amendment to the proposal, which wasn’t voted on Tuesday. The amendment would include language saying the city “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it is “in furtherance of a compelling government interest and the least restrictive means.” Kuhse said the language was modeled after federal law.

The other city charter amendments that voters will consider in November include:

  • Preventing a council member from voting on their own replacement when a vacancy occurs.
  • Changing the process for determining if the Mayor is unable to perform their duties because of health issues. Instead of appointing a medical committee to determine if the City Council President needs to take over as acting mayor, the City Council will vote directly, requiring a two-thirds majority vote. 
  • Creating a line of succession for acting Mayor if both the President and Vice President of the Council are unable to preside or act as Mayor, starting from the longest serving council member to the shortest.
  • Increase the maximum amount that the city can allocate to the cash reserve fund, from 8% of general appropriations to 12%.
  • Requiring the city planning department to address affordable housing and sustainability when preparing the city’s master plan.

A controversial proposal to allow the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department to install automatic license plate detection throughout the city was pulled from Tuesday’s agenda. Opponents raised concerns that it was an invasion of privacy, and multiple councilmembers agreed.

The City Council also heard a proposal to hire WSP USA to consult in the creation of the Vision Zero Action Plan, Mayor Stothert’s proposal to make roads safer and reduce traffic fatalities. The consultant would put together a report on how to proceed with the initiative. A vote on hiring a consultant is expected next week.

County Board

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also met Tuesday to receive a monthly update on the department of corrections.

Corrections Director Mike Myers said although the prison population increased in July, it’s down significantly compared to a year ago. He said the department’s 24/7 sobriety program — which keeps eligible offenders out of jail as long as they stay sober — is a major contributor to lower incarceration rates. Eighty-nine individuals were placed on the program in July.

“That is one tangible thing I can point to as a reason for population reduction,” Myers said. “That some folks that would’ve been detained pre-trial are being monitored on that program.”

Myers added that the program is projected to bring in $660,000 in revenue to Douglas County because it is participant-funded. The program is also voluntary.

The department is also continuing to address staffing issues. Myers said they came to an agreement to shorten the length of officer training academy by one week by instituting longer days. 

The County Board also approved two American Rescue Plan Act funding requests. The first gives $95,000 to Creighton University to study whether three buildings owned by the university can be converted to affordable housing. The second gives $112,000 in operational funding to Lifestyle Fitness Health and Wellness.


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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