North Omaha residents turned out to oppose multiple items on the Omaha City Council’s agenda Tuesday, including the plan to redraw the City Council’s seven districts and proposed changes to the Human Rights and Relations Board. Among them was former state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who threatened to sue the city for the redistricting plan.
Chambers spoke for more than 15 minutes about racism and his experience in the legislature. He said he pushed for the law to require district elections for the City Council because the government should resemble its constituents. Chambers said the proposed plan would dilute Omaha’s Black community.
“I’m not here to indict anybody, but I’m here to tell you that what was done… hurts the community of which I have been a member for more years than any of you have probably been on this earth,” Chambers said
Activist and former U.S. Senate candidate Preston Love shared his concerns with the area of downtown Omaha between Districts 2 and 3, where the Kiewit Luminarium is being built. Love said North Omaha would miss out on an economic asset if the site is moved out of District 2.
The deadline to complete the redistricting process is Dec. 30, giving the City Council only one more meeting to make any changes. City Council Chief of Staff Jim Dowding said states had about half the time they usually would because of the 2020 U.S. Census delay. Municipalities received even less time with the process, Dowding said, because the city needs to draw precincts within legislative boundaries.
Councilmembers Juanita Johnson and Danny Begley both said they’d work to find a compromise on the boundary between their districts. The City Council has time to consider an amendment before voting next week.
The Civil Rights Hearing Board — a body appointed by the mayor that is meant to hear discrimination cases — has been inactive for more than 20 years. On Tuesday, the City Council discussed a proposal to revive the board with major changes.
Under the new proposal, the Civil Rights Hearing Board would consist of three members chosen from the existing Human Rights and Relations Board. Currently, city code requires 11 members to be chosen from the community.
Human Rights and Relations Director Franklin Thompson said part of the reason the Civil Rights Hearing Board became inactive was because it was difficult to recruit nominees for the 11 member board. Without the board, Thompson said the Human Rights and Relations department has taken on some of its responsibilities.
Assistant City Attorney Stacy Hultquist said after the Human Rights and Relations department invesitgates a discrimination complaint, the complainant can then either take the case to court or to the Civil Rights Hearing Board if it hasn’t been resolved. She said they’re left with fewer options without the board.
Hultquist said a complainant may be less intimidated to bring a case to the board than to court. She said it’d be crucial in housing cases, where investigations are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“It is very important to HUD that the Civil Rights Hearing Board is active and in place as an option,” Hultquist said. “HUD has made it clear…if they do not see our Civil Rights Hearing Board active again, this could ultimately jeopardize HUD’s funding to the city.”
HUD didn’t give a deadline but Thompson encouraged the board not to delay the decision. The vote is scheduled for next week’s meeting.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners allocated funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) towards mental health resources during Tuesday’s meeting.
The board allocated $955,950 to hire two licensed mental health therapists for the Douglas County Youth Center and fund an initiative to purchase tablets for youth to help manage behaviors.
The board also allocated $1.5 million to Front Porch Investments to provide a non-congregate shelter for populations at heightened risk for COVID-19. FPI Director of Operations Naomi Hattaway said they haven’t had any outbreaks or deaths associated with the non-congregate shelter. FPI has partnered with other nonprofits, along with government and philanthropic funding, to expand the 2021-2022 Winter Contingency Plan.
“Last winter, we learned that these services prevent people experiencing homelessness from serious harm or death during the harshest of winter months,” Hattaway said in a press release Tuesday. “Continuing to offer expanded opportunities for shelter and safety aligns with our efforts to provide housing stability across our community.”
After receiving a monthly update from Douglas County Corrections Director Mike Myers, the board allocated more than $5 million in ARPA funding to cover increased staffing costs, mental health services and a pretrial supervision program in the correctional facility.
Myers said 80% of people incarcerated in the facility have not been convicted and are awaiting trial. He said a subset of those individuals could be managed in the community instead of in jail.
“I believe this will actually make the community safer,” Myers said. “Individuals who are incarcerated for months on end awaiting trial end up losing anything that is positive in their life.”