The Omaha City Council is facing fresh scrutiny for its appointment of Colleen Brennan, this time critics say the council violated state law when it allowed her predecessor to vote for her appointment.
On Dec. 22, Brennan was appointed by the City Council by a 5-2 vote to serve the remainder of Councilman Rich Pahls’ term. Pahls’ seat, representing southwest Omaha District 5, became vacant on Jan. 5, when his term as a State Senator began. Brennan is scheduled to be sworn in today, the first convening of the council since it appointed her on Dec. 22. She will serve until June 6.
Immediately Brennan faced controversy when the Omaha World Herald reported on her personal blog, over 60 posts, some indelicately stumbling through a range of topics from race relations to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brennan suggested the response to her posts has been “blown out of proportion,” and she still plans to keep the seat and to run for the District 5 seat, which represents southwest Omaha, next spring.
More recently, the discrepancy between Brennan’s appointment in December and the seat’s vacancy in January has raised questions for those who are critical of the process.
In particular, activists have pointed to Nebraska Statute 32-568, which says, “If any vacancy occurs in the office of city council member of a city of the metropolitan class, the remaining members of the council shall appoint a person to fill such vacancy from the district in which the vacancy occurred for the remainder of the term.” Similar language is repeated in Sec. 8-42 of the Omaha city charter.
On Twitter, many users accused Pahls of not only violating state and city law, but also breaking with precedent, citing several examples dating back to 1994 of councilmembers not voting on their successors.
Rich Pahls @RichPahls was first outgoing CM to vote for replacement, Colleen Brennan @The_Nebraska. Law Dept said, “I am not familiar with the circumstances of the votes referenced in the past so I cannot use them as a reference without more information.” Here is more info.— Scott Blake (@ScottBlake) January 7, 2021
But Omaha City Attorney Matt Kuhse said he and other members of the city’s legal department took more than the one statute into account when considering the legality of the process.
“Looking at the totality of the law, the position was not vacant yet,” Kuhse said. “Rich Pahls was still a member of the City Council, and I can find nothing in Nebraska law or in Omaha’s charter or in Omaha’s ordinances that would prohibit Pahls from voting on this position.”
In addition to statute 32-568, which explains how vacancies are filled, Kuhse pointed to statutes 32-560 and 32-569, which define vacancies and outline the selection process for filling vacancies respectively. Neither states current elected officials can vote for their replacements.
Kuhse says that Pahls was legally able to vote for his replacement, because he had not yet vacated his seat when the Dec. 22 vote took place.
Omaha City Council President Chris Jerram did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Even with the legal explanation coming from the City Attorney’s office, Brennan’s appointment isn’t any less frustrating for Omaha activists like Ja Keen Fox. Fox says he has been displeased with the lack of transparency and accountability in the process.
“The residents of District 5 deserve to be more included in this process,” Fox said. “We need to figure out a process that has more to do with what the community needs, as opposed to what the outgoing council member thinks is important because he works for the people.”
Seventeen people applied to fill Pahls vacancy with Brennan rising to the top. Councilmember Vinny Palermo told the Omaha World-Herald he voted for her because she contacted him the most. Other councilmembers said they were unaware of her blog posts, some of which aimed to start conversations around race and inequality.
In one post from June 1 titled “The Conversation on Race,” she wrote that white people want to know “why African Americans don’t stop the adoration of gangs, crime and violence when they are the disproportionate victims of it and “why after 60 years of increasingly generous progressive social programs and affirmative action, the social and economic health of the African American community has gotten worse instead of better. They want to know why so many African American men show such disrespect for women and the children they create.”
Black people, she wrote, want white people to know about the consequences of poverty. They want White People to understand that becoming a gang banger, living a life of crime or becoming the mother of multiple children with multiple fathers is a byproduct of that hopelessness,” she wrote.
Brennan, who works an insurance marketing firm and has helped advocate for children with disabilities, has defended those comments. The former Autism Speaks Parent of the Year said her frank thoughts are meant to start hard conversations.
But to others the only conversation it’s started is how she won the District 5 City Council seat. Activists say the community should have more of a role in the process of selecting, vetting and approving new city council members.
“It’s disappointing that there was no real process of vetting by the City Council,” Fox said. “That’s not really understanding the importance of this position, and it’s troubling to see how little the position seems to mean to them, based on their actions.”