(Editor’s note: A quote from Cheryl Weston was originally misattributed to Precious McKesson. This article was updated on Thursday, July 15 at 2:30 p.m.).
The Omaha City Council voted to delay the confirmation of Ben Gray to the Omaha Municipal Land Bank (OMLB) board of directors during Tuesday’s meeting, following public opposition to the former city councilmember’s appointment.
“Mr. Gray has had his opportunity to serve for District 2,” Cheryl Weston said. “This community wants new leadership.”
The OMLB is a governmental nonprofit that acquires “vacant, abandoned or dilapidated properties” and either renovates or demolishes them. The OMLB board of directors features a voting member for each city district, as well as multiple non-voting members. The city council also appoints a non-voting member representing the council, which is now Councilmember Juanita Johnson.
Mayor Jean Stothert selected Gray to replace Tiffany Hunter as the representative for District 2. Hunter, who now resides within District 3, will stay on the board as a non-voting member.
Gray represented District 2 on the Omaha City Council for 12 years until he was defeated by Councilmember Johnson in May. During his time on the council, Gray helped develop the OMLB, which was created in 2014.
Several community members from North Omaha spoke in front of city council to oppose the appointment of Ben Gray. Opponents said Gray was voted off the city council because he doesn’t engage with the community, and that the OMLB hasn’t done enough for North Omaha.
“Nobody ever bothers to ask us,” Terence Haynes said. “North Omaha still looks the same way that it does in 1969.”
Haynes said the Mayor often chooses from the same pool of people to represent District 2, and that those people don’t “have our best interests at heart.”
Opponents requested that the city council ask Mayor Stothert to find a different candidate, and that Councilmember Johnson be a part of that process.
Councilmember Aimee Melton defended Gray as “uniquely qualified” for the position, citing his experience on the council and his role in the creation of the OMLB. Gray addressed some of the comments made by residents.
“There was so much misinformation today that I just don’t know where to start,” Gray said.
Gray said he was shown a screenshot of a Facebook post from Johnson. The post was a “Community Call to Action” asking for community members to comment on the appointment at the city council meeting.
“A call to action. A call to do what?” Gray said. “For whatever reason, people are assuming that I, for some reason, have some desire to divide the community.”
Gray said he has met with Johnson, and he believes they can work together. Johnson said she recognizes the Mayor’s authority to choose a candidate, but she wants the community to be involved.
“Far too long, District 2 has been out of the talking position,” Johnson said. “We want our community to want to be involved, want to have a say.”
After over an hour of heated exchanges and impassioned pleas, the city council was left divided. Councilmembers Melton and Brinker Harding made clear their support for Ben Gray, while Councilmember Vinny Palermo joined Johnson in opposing the appointment.
Harding said that Mayor Stothert won reelection in the same election that Gray was voted out, and that he supports Gray’s appointment. Palermo said that while Gray was qualified, he would not support his appointment after hearing from the community and Johnson.
Councilmember Johnson moved to deny the appointment. The vote to deny failed 3-4, with Councilmember Dan Begley joining Palermo and Johnson in voting yes. The motion to approve the appointment then fell along the same lines, 4-3.
After the vote to approve appeared to have passed, many District 2 residents left the legislative chambers visibly disappointed.
“This is a joke,” one said.
However, City Clerk Elizabeth Butler informed the council that the appointment required a supermajority of at least five votes, meaning the motion to approve also failed. The council voted again, which still failed 4-3.
After an exchange between council members, Councilmember Palermo moved to have the resolution laid over until July 27’s meeting, which only required a simple majority. It passed 4-3, with Councilmember Festersen breaking the tie.
The city council was then able to move on to the mayor’s 2021 annexation package, which they approved. Councilmembers Palermo and Johnson voted against it.
“We don’t have enough city employees across the board,” Palermo said, referring to the city’s current effort to recover from last week’s storm as well as existing shortages in the city’s Public Works department. “You’re gonna add more wires, you’re gonna add more lane miles?”
Councilmember Festersen said the proposal was the smallest he’s seen in recent years, and that it would be financially beneficial.
The city council adopted new Omaha City Park rules, which had been laid over twice to add an amendment to keep city trails open 24 hours. Parks director Matt Kalcevich said the department spoke to officials from other cities with similar policies, and they worked with local advocacy groups like Bike Walk Nebraska and Mode Shift Omaha.
City trails will now be open all hours as an “at your own risk activity” for use as transportation. Between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. (when the trails would have been closed) users should not stop or park unless necessary.
Due to a recent change in Nebraska law, the Omaha City Council created a process for council meeting participants to waive the requirement to publicly state their address. The form will be available on the City Clerk website, and must be completed by 4:30 p.m. the Monday before the meeting.
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