As daylight faded outside City Hall in downtown Omaha, City Council members stayed at their desks debating how Nebraska’s largest city will address two of its most glaring issues: climate change and affordable housing. But solutions may be on the horizon with Council members officially giving support to Mayor Jean Stothert’s climate and affordable housing action plans. They also approved a legislative package to lobby for in the state Legislature.
The Omaha City Council voted 6-1 to voice support for the city’s climate action plan, which is being developed. The resolution comes after the city councils of Omaha and Lincoln met last week to discuss common issues like climate change. Council President Pete Festersen said other cities are ahead of Omaha on the issue, as Lincoln passed a climate action plan in March.
“I do think this will require some resources upfront for implementation, but I also think these efforts — when they’re done well — typically do save money anyway, in addition to being the right thing to do for our environment and our climate,” Festersen said.
Aimee Melton was the only councilmember to vote against the resolution. She raised concerns over the cost of the plan and the lack of information. She said the City Council was provided with a draft of the plan shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, and that it didn’t address the potential financial impacts.
“When I’m looking at this draft, it creates more questions than answers,” Melton said. “I’m not going to blindly vote for something because it sounds good and not care about any of the details.”
Mayor Stothert’s office is developing the plan with the Omaha Public Power District and the Metropolitan Utilities District. The mayor’s office is also working with Metro Smart Cities, an initiative active in Omaha transportation projects like the Market to Midtown Bikeway. Metro Smart Cities will select a consultant to aid the city with outreach to stakeholders.
The City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the city planning department’s effort to develop an affordable-housing action plan. The Nebraska state Legislature adopted a bill last year that required cities with a population over 50,000 to develop a plan by Jan. 1, 2023.
Councilmember Festersen referenced a recent study that found the city is 80,000 units short on affordable housing. He said $20 million from the American Rescue Plan could be allocated for affordable housing, and the city expects another $20 million in philanthropic funding. Councilmember Melton said private-public partnerships are what the city does best.
Ahead of the Nebraska Legislature’s session in January, the City Council approved a package of legislative priorities. City Lobbyist Jack Cheloha was designated to lobby senators to support the City Council’s priorities.
The only resolution that wasn’t approved with the rest of the package Tuesday was a request by Councilmember Melton to change state liquor license laws. Cheloha said the bill would correct a “glitch” in state law by bringing private social clubs under the definition of bottle clubs, requiring them to get licensed to serve alcohol. Councilmember Juanita Johnson moved to lay over the resolution for two weeks, which was passed 5-2.
Cheryl Weston, an opponent from North Omaha, said the bill was a dog whistle targeting certain social clubs in Omaha. Cheloha identified only four clubs that would be affected by the bill: Club Omaha, Los-Diablos Motorcycle Club, Forbidden Omaha, and a Hell’s Angels club.
Lavonya Goodwin, a business owner from the area and president of the North 24th Street Business Improvement District, said nuisances from the social clubs have gotten worse in recent years. Goodwin, Weston and members of Los-Diablos argued in circles with Councilmembers Melton and Johnson. Melton offered to set up a meeting to discuss the issue further, and she assured them that she didn’t intend to shut any clubs down.
Approved with the legislative package was a request by Council President Festersen to support LB 453, a bill introduced earlier this year that would require landlords to comply with local ordinances as well as state law.
Last year, an ordinance went in effect in Omaha that required landlords to register their properties and allow routine inspections. Erin Feichtinger from Together said a majority of eviction filings in Omaha in 2020 were from addresses not in compliance with the ordinance.
“The people that we serve at Together are asked to comply with complex legal documents or risk losing their homes,” Feichtinger said. “All we’re asking here is for property owners to comply with the most basic and free part of the ordinance you passed before making someone homeless.”
The City Council also gave support to a bill that would mandate better notice from wireless companies when placing a cell tower, to prevent towers like the one built in the middle of a sidewalk near 55th and Poppleton streets.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also met Tuesday to receive a COVID-19 update from Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse. Huse said cases are still rising, and last week’s seven-day total was higher than the Delta wave’s previous peak.
Huse said the health department believes most of the growth in cases is because of transmission in school settings. Cases for those ages 0-19 rose significantly, along with those ages 30-39.h Huse said that can be attributed to teachers and parents.
The health department was forced to close its drive-through vaccination clinic at the CHI Health Center because of vandalism. Huse said the location vaccinated nearly 100 people per clinic, but the vandalism made it no longer tenable. The health department is looking at alternate sites in North Omaha.
Vaccination rates are spiking, Huse said she was happy to report. More than 18% of children ages 5-11 have received their first dose, which Huse said will rise rapidly in the next few weeks.
“You can still get most of your immunity built up before Christmas,” Huse said.