The legislative chambers inside the Omaha City Hall. Photo by Chris Bowling.

City Council

Despite being officially non-partisan, party lines were clear as the Omaha City Council voted on vetoed amendments to the 2022 city budget and 2022-2027 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

The City Council needed five votes to override Mayor Jean Stothert’s vetoes, and each amendment received only four. The four Democrats (Councilmembers Pete Festersen, Vinny Palermo, Juanita Johnson and Danny Begley) all voted yes on each amendment. The three Republicans (Councilmembers Don Rowe, Brinker Harding and Aimee Melton) all voted no.

Councilmember Johnson’s proposal to allocate $15,000 from the general fund to pay for a website consultant failed after Councilmember Melton said she feared it would be used as a “political website.”

Three amendments to the CIP introduced by Council President Festersen failed Tuesday, including funding to improve infrastructure at the North Saddle Creek Business District. The amendment received six votes last week, with Councilmembers Rowe and Melton flipping their votes.

Rowe said he visited the area over the weekend, but decided to oppose the amendment because of the mayor’s concerns that the proposal would take funding away from other projects. Festersen said the proposal would only cost $50,000, and would leave $290,000 for any other projects.

“I can see where this is going,” Festersen said after the first two amendments failed along the same lines.

Festersen also proposed implementing the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan and making the Harney Street Protected Bikeway permanent as a part of the CIP. Festersen said “the time is now” to improve transportation in the city.

“We all did campaign on improving transit as a component and an important aspect of retaining and attracting our future workforce,” Festersen said.

Festersen said the protected bikeway has been delayed 10 years already, and the veto would delay it another two years. Melton said last week that the project doesn’t meet the 15 year lifespan required to be considered a capital improvement, and raised legal concerns over the use of transportation bonds.

Councilmember Rowe said he supported the bike lane, but it was too soon to make the pilot program permanent. He said the City Council is set to receive data every six months to assess the bike lane. It has only existed for less than a month.

Councilmember Begley said the bike lane was important to his constituents in District 3, and thanked Festersen for his leadership on the project. Councilmember Palermo also thanked Festersen, and said it was unfortunate that some council members weren’t supporting these amendments.

“Anybody that sits up here and they talk about bettering the City of Omaha, retaining people in the City of Omaha, making things happen in the City of Omaha,” Palermo said. “Ask yourself why you’re not supporting what we have in front of us.” 

County Board

Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse told the board of commissioners that she asked the state health department to declare a mask mandate for the county Tuesday. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services denied the request later that day.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department implemented a mask mandate Tuesday without state approval due to a quirk in state law. Because the department was formed before the state health department, it doesn’t fall under the state’s jurisdiction like Douglas County does.

Lincoln Public Schools and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln both announced indoor mask mandates Tuesday. The University of Nebraska at Omaha also announced a mask mandate beginning Wednesday.

Mayor Stothert released a statement Tuesday saying she opposed a new mask mandate. The proposed mandate would last until the county’s transmission rate dropped below the high category and eight weeks after a vaccine is approved for children aged 5 to 11.

“This week has been extremely tough in terms of Covid here in Douglas County,” Huse said.

Several classrooms at Millard Public Schools were closed last week because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Huse said Omaha has been lucky to not see hospitalizations and deaths at pediatric units as high as other parts of the country.

“Our kids deserve protection, and they deserve an education,” Huse said. “Our health systems are barely treading water.” 

The board declared Aug. 24 “County Staff Appreciation Day” during Tuesday’s meeting. Board Chair Mary Ann Borgeson said every department has done a “stellar job” facing a global pandemic.

“It’s small, but we wanted all the employees to know how much we appreciate them and their dedication to the work that they do,” Borgeson said.

During his monthly report to the board, Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers read a description of the protocol taken by correctional officers to forcibly shower inmates who refuse to bathe. He said this is a regular occurrence with inmates experiencing severe mental illness.

“When people think of what you do in a jail,” Myers said. “People don’t think of that sort of activity that our staff deal with on an everyday basis.

Attrition of staff has been an ongoing issue for the corrections department, as 11 officers and one sergeant left the department in July. Myers said the emotional and physical toll of the job is a commonly cited reason for leaving. 

The corrections department is developing efforts to improve staff wellness, including healthier food options and working with bargaining units on alternative work schedules. Myers said staffing issues have been worse in the past, but the pandemic introduced new stressors.

Although burnout and staff turnover are issues among jails nationwide, Myers said they are “committed to not accepting that it has to remain that way here.” The department will be represented at the American Jail Association’s Wellness and Resiliency Summit in Columbus, Ohio, later this year. 

Nearly half of the incarcerated population is diagnosed with a mental illness, and Myers said 14% are diagnosed with psychosis. Commissioner Maureen Boyle said the board is focused on mental health initiatives to get those people help and keep them out of jail.

“It’s not good for the folks in the correctional facility who work there to deal with a population they may not be equipped to deal with,” Boyle said. “And second, it’s a complete disservice to the people who are put in prison for that.”

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