The Omaha City Council temporarily ousted Councilmember Vinny Palermo as council vice president as he faces corruption charges.
Along with three other defendants, two of which are former Omaha police officers, Palermo was indicted last week for allegedly defrauding the Latino Peace Officers Association and Police Athletics for Community Engagement.
The week-long removal went into effect immediately after the 5-0 vote. The City Council will hold another public hearing and vote next Tuesday to permanently remove Palermo as council vice president. The council can not remove Palermo. If convicted, or if he does not appear at a meeting for three months, he will forfeit his seat, according to Omaha City Charter.
Councilmembers Brinker Harding, Aimee Melton and Don Rowe requested the resolution. Harding said it brought him no joy to introduce the resolution, but Palermo violated public trust.
“In my opinion, he should resign from the body altogether,” Harding said. “But we are limited, maybe. There’s nothing in the state statutes that gives us that power.”
Councilmember Juanita Johnson abstained from the vote. Although she was taken aback by the indictment, Johnson said Palermo is innocent until proven guilty.
“That’s why we have a court system,” Johnson said. “When we talk about the law, we can’t just arbitrarily pick or choose what part of the law we want to implement.”
Harding said he and city staff are looking at Section 8.05 of the Omaha City Charter, which says that no elected official “shall have a financial interest, direct or indirect, in any city contract,” which is punishable by “forfeiture of office or position.” Among the allegations against Palermo is that he steered nearly $93,000 worth of city contracts toward his own companies and never disclosed a conflict of interest.
Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan, who ran for Palermo’s seat in 2017 and 2021, also urged Palermo to resign. She said Palermo violated public trust.
“I’m so saddened that my community has to face all this again and again,” Barrientos-Patlan said. “He should be removed totally.”
El Perico reported Tuesday that South Omaha resident Jonathan Rentería filed for a petition to recall Palermo. The petition would need at least 2,462 signatures from voters in District 4 to trigger a recall election.
Council President Pete Festersen said the resolution was necessary as both he and Mayor Jean Stothert may be out of town later this week. In that case, had Palermo been in Omaha, he could have become acting mayor, as was the case in December when his home was raided by the FBI. With no council vice president, Councilmember Melton would instead become acting mayor as the most senior councilmember.
Festersen said he also removed Palermo from his committee assignments.
Councilmember Melton said the resolution protected the city from further damage. She said Palermo can’t be trusted to make decisions regarding taxpayer dollars.
“When you are charged with a crime, usually the victims receive no contact orders…We want to make sure the alleged victims are protected,” Melton said. “That’s exactly what this does right now. It’s protecting the taxpayers and citizens of Omaha.”
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners postponed voting on a resolution to move forward with a controversial proposed mental health facility.
The proposal would relocate the county’s Community Mental Health Center to a new building at 16th and Jackson Streets and connect the facility with the nearby county jail. The resolution would’ve directed county staff to begin the project.
With an estimated cost of up to $60 million, Commissioner P.J. Morgan moved to postpone the resolution to get more information. The County Board voted 4-3 to postpone, with Chair Mary Ann Borgeson and Commissioners Chris Rodgers and Roger Garcia voting against the resolution.
The County Board planned on using $50 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and $8 million of leftover money from the CARES Act. The rest would be paid from the county’s general fund.
Morgan said he would take the time to communicate with state legislators about a potential collaboration on the project, which would alleviate some concerns about the price tag.
Morgan initially wanted to vote on the new community mental health center and the expansion to the correctional facility separately, which the Board determined wasn’t possible. He said if they could just take on the expansion to the correctional facility, they could take more time with the project and get a better estimate on the cost.
“We don’t have an HDR or Kiewit that has the plans,” Morgan said. “I don’t know the harm that would be if we just move ahead.”
He said the community mental health center will cost nearly $30 million for only 20 beds.
Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh presented an alternative proposal for expanding the county’s mental health facilities without new construction. He said renovations at the mental health center’s current location in the Douglas County Health Center on 42nd Street would allow them to provide long-term services and collaborate with the nearby University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Cavanaugh said they can provide more mental health services for the incarcerated population by modifying over 100 vacant beds at correctional facilities. Over 40% of the incarcerated population is diagnosed with a mental illness.
“We need numbers on an alternative just as due diligence best practices,” Cavanaugh said. “And there’s no reason that we couldn’t develop other alternatives. There’s no rush.”
Several testifiers, including former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, raised concerns about the cost and expressed interest in an alternative like the one proposed by Commissioner Cavanaugh.
“I think that using current land with current property that’s renovated is what the taxpayers would prefer you to do in solving this problem,” Daub said.