The Douglas County Board of Commissioners discussed the local department of corrections, Juneteenth holiday, and the state of the COVID-19 pandemic during Tuesday’s meeting.
The meeting began with a monthly report on the Douglas County Department of Corrections from director Michael Myers. The pandemic’s effect on the corrections department is still being felt, Myers said, but the department is beginning to recover.
“The duration of the pandemic is basically half my tenure as the director,” Myers said. “The world changed…and it’s time for us to get back and refocus on those goals we established when I first took over.”
Many programs were still closed in May, but Myers said his department will soon be back to normal. The law library, which gives inmates access to legal materials and research, reopened on June 7. Programs for inmates like the Recovery Assistance Program and Work Release are set to fully resume when Community Corrections reopens in July.
Nearly 75% of the staff and 747 incarcerated individuals are now vaccinated, including 147 who were vaccinated in May. Myers said no COVID-19 cases were reported among staff or the incarcerated population in May.
Commissioner Chris Rodgers, the only Black member of the Douglas County Board, gave a proclamation recognizing June 19 as Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth is an opportunity for Americans of all races to join together to acknowledge the lasting impacts of slavery and racial injustice,” Rodgers said. “And to recommit ourselves and our next generation to the goal of dismantling systemic racism and creating an equitable society.”
Commissioner Rodgers informed the public about the Omaha Freedom Festival, a Juneteenth celebration at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation on Saturday. Rodgers also invited the public to the Will Brown Historical Marker Unveiling at the Douglas County Courthouse on Friday.
Douglas County Health Director Dr. Adi Pour gave the county board an update on local COVID-19 numbers and the county’s vaccination plan. In the last several weeks, the county has seen a constant decrease in cases. This week, however, Pour said that cases have flattened.
“We had 88 cases this week and 86 cases the week before,” Pour said. “We are at this endemic level, so to say.”
Testing has also decreased, Pour said, so the positivity rate has risen from 1.5% to 2%.
Teenagers aged 15-17 made up 11.4% of new cases this week. Pour said that age group typically makes up as much as 5% of new cases, and that number has never been this high. None of those cases were connected to each other, however all of them were unvaccinated.
Pour said 46.5% of Douglas County residents are fully vaccinated including 7.1% of people under the age of 15. Teenagers aged 16-19 have seen the biggest increase in vaccinations in the last week among age groups. The Hispanic population has seen the biggest increase among ethnic groups as the health department continues to focus on vaccinations in North and South Omaha.
Omaha City Councilmember Juanita Johnson previewed a busy afternoon by greeting attendees with fist bumps minutes before Tuesday’s city council meeting. Johnson then asked to delay a resolution that would have approved what proponents called a “fairly routine” application for a sidewalk lease in her district until the next city council meeting on June 29.
The resolution would have allowed Daniel Goodwin Jr. to lease city property at 3118 North 24 Street to build a patio with stairs. Ben Swan, representing the developer, said the application was a run of the mill sidewalk lease “to allow the doors to swing out.”
LaVonya Goodwin, from the North 24th Street Business Improvement District (BID), said the lease is a part of a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project and it was recommended by Public Works to ensure pedestrian safety. Goodwin said the project would improve a “quasi-local landmark” in North Omaha.
Johnson said she needed “more time to investigate” the project because constituents in her district, which includes the project location, have concerns over how CDBG funds are spent.
Goodwin said she believed the delay was “personal between Juanita Johnson and any grievances she might have toward the BID” or herself.
Councilmember Aimee Melton clarified that the resolution is to comply with requirements from the City, and no additional CDBG funds are involved. The CDBG funds were approved last year and the project has met every deadline with support from the City, Goodwin said.
Goodwin asked for a different councilmember to be a part of future discussions. The council voted to lay the resolution over to June 29.
Mayor Jean Stothert arrived to speak in front of the city council in support of her choice for chief of staff, former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren Sr. The council voted to approve Warren’s contract.
“Tom supports the goals of my administration,” Stothert said. “To make Omaha a safe, growing, financially stable, diverse and inclusive city.”
The city council also approved $6.2 million in tax increment financing for a mixed-use project in Blackstone. The nine-story building to be built at 3719 Farnam Street and 3710 Harney Street will include 20,000 square feet on the ground floor for commercial space as well as 161 apartments.
The city council then delayed another resolution to June 29 after several citizens spoke to oppose new city park rules.
Director of Parks and Recreation Matt Kalcevich detailed the process they went through to draft the proposed rules, which include changes like adding a section about the use of drones at city parks, and authorizing the use of e-bikes and e-scooters on park trails. Kalcevich said they met with several organizations, both national and local.
Julie Harris from Bike Walk Nebraska said she approved of the new rules allowing e-bikes on trails, but she had concerns about the hours trails are open. City parks and trails are closed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., but Harris said some people rely on those trails for transportation during those hours.
Many opponents said they wanted the trails to be recognized as being for transportation, not just recreation. Sarah Johnson said the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency and Omaha Metro recognize trails as transportation.
“I’m hoping that today we can all come to the conclusion together as a community that trails are transportation,” said Johnson, a member of transit advocacy group Mode Shift Omaha and a former Omaha City Council candidate. “And keep them open 24 hours as such.”
Trail hours are a racial equity issue as well, Johnson said. Since traffic stops with the police have shown to be dangerous for Black and brown people, open trail hours could allow those citizens to avoid those situations
Kyliesha Peak asked for the council to take into consideration any homeless individuals who may sleep in the parks. Peak said the council should be “proactive instead of reactive.”
Councilmember Brinker Harding was the first to say he was open to laying the resolution over to the next meeting so they could “work on some language” to address issues. Councilmember Johnson said she had concerns about crime in her district, and that she wanted more information about how park rules could affect that.
The Department Parks and Recreation did a survey of Omaha trail users in March, but councilmember Palermo said he wanted to see a more comprehensive study.
“I appreciate the layover,” Palermo said. “Because it possibly saves me from voting against this.”
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