The Douglas County Board of Commissioners voted to show its support for County Attorney Don Kleine Tuesday morning. The vote, which passed 4-0 with two commissioners abstaining, followed the Nebraska Democratic Party’s Sept. 27 resolution stating that Kleine, a member of the party at the time, upheld white supremacy in his handling of the case involving James Scurlock’s death.
Tuesday’s meeting, which started at 9 a.m. was sparsely attended compared to past public meetings that dealt with issues of racial justice. Most who spoke against the resolution said the initiative was political in nature and should not be the position of the governing body.
“This is not part of your job,” Cheryl Weston said. “You don’t need resolutions like this. This is just political points for the party you’re in.”
Kleine declined to press charges against Jake Gardner, saying the downtown bar owner shot 22-year-old Scurlock in self defense during the second night of protests in Omaha back in late May. Since then protesters have convened at Kleine’s home and the county attorney has received scrutiny for decisions to release Scurlock’s toxicology report and attacking the special prosecutor who chose to indict Garner on manslaughter charges.
Commissioners in favor of the resolution spoke about Kleine’s record in the county and their personal knowledge of him as a friend.
Commissioner Chris Rogers said he’s known Kleine for more than 20 years. In that time, Rogers said he’s seen him hire Black lawyers and promote a fair judicial presence in the county. When Kleine considered petitioning a grand jury and special prosecutor in the Scurlock case, Kleine asked for advice from Rogers and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, the metro area’s only two Black legislative officials.
Rogers also words matter. And he does not believe Kleine is a white supremacist.
Mary Ann Borgeson who brought the resolution forward with County Commissioner P.J. Morgan said the resolution’s focus was healing the community. The decision to add this resolution to the agenda was made before Kleine publicly left the Democratic Party and registered as a Republican, flanked by top ranking state party members. Borgeson said Omaha is divided and this is their chance to heal.
“We need to put it to rest, and we need to move on.”
Commissioner Boyle who abstained from voting, along with Commissioner Mike Cavanaugh, said the resolution should be withdrawn. It would do more to divide the city than bring it together, he said.
State Senator Ernie Chambers also spoke at the meeting. He said Don Kleine violated his oath when he released the toxicology and autopsy report for the 22-year-old Scurlock. Kleine said he had an obligation to release the information when the Omaha World-Herald requested it, as they did in certain high profile deaths. Others argued it was unethical as it could influence the separate investigation, led by veteran federal prosecutor Fred Franklin.
Chambers, who also spoke of his long and mostly positive history with Kleine, said he filed a complaint against the county attorney following the release of those reports. Chambers asked the county board to stay out of this topic and not impede further disciplinary action.
The resolution passed in short order with a silent vote after limited comments from commissioners. As the few who’d made the early morning journey to city hall trickled out of the legislative chambers, many left dissatisfied. While many do believe Kleine upheld white supremacy with his decision over the past few months, they were more unhappy that the issue had to be debated at all.
Several citizens said county commissioners could have supported Don Kleine on their own time. Time during the meeting, they said, should be used to figure out how to spend remaining CARES Act dollars to help provide assistance in housing, food, employment and other effects of the pandemic that’s transmitting worse in Douglas County than ever before.
All the while there is still frustration and anger surrounding Kleine’s action in the Scurlock case. For the county board to take a stand now, sends the wrong message.
“If you want to talk about healing,” Weston said, “this is not the way to heal.”
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