Tuesday’s Omaha City Council meeting grew tense as District 2 residents in North Omaha spoke in opposition to Mayor Jean Stothert’s choice to represent the district on the Omaha Municipal Land Bank Board of Directors. The Land Bank redistributes vacant properties acquired by the city to residents. District 2 representative Juanita Johnson was the only city council member to vote against the appointment of Sharlon Rodgers, which was approved 6-1.
Many of the same opponents who spoke out against former Omaha City Councilmember Ben Gray’s appointment to the land bank in July turned out against Rodgers. Cheryl Weston called the appointment nepotism because Rodgers is the wife of Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers. She said the mayor chooses representatives for North Omaha from a particular “in-crowd,” ignoring other qualified candidates.
Weston and others said they didn’t have concerns about Rodgers herself, but that the city council needs to take feedback from North Omaha residents more seriously.
“There are problems in District 2 that y’all have no idea about,” opponent Sherman Wells said. “If we are saying it’s an issue, your job is not to just side with the mayor…your job is to go with what the district is asking.”
Mayor Chief of Staff Tom Warren said the mayor’s office delayed making another choice after Gray’s appointment failed. Rodgers was identified as the preferred candidate, and Warren said it’s the mayor’s prerogative. Typically city council members aren’t involved in discussions, Warren said, even though the Land Bank has representatives for each city council district.
Councilmember Brinker Harding read a letter titled “Stothert’s in bed with nepotism and crony capitalism” the city council received. The letter called various Black Omaha government officials “Uncle Toms,” equating their perceived loyalty to the mayor with that of slaves’ obedience to their white masters. Harding said the letter was written by a Black man. He said the language was unacceptable.
“To hear certain statements about you that feel like it’s something related to your character is difficult,” Rodgers said. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to be an example and a participant in my community to display the passion I had in making the world a better place.”
Councilmember Aimee Melton said this is the first time she’s seen this kind of animosity during her time on the city council.
“I don’t want to see these appointments now become another divisive issue on this council to make us look no better than what half the time the [Nebraska] Legislature looks like and exactly what Washington D.C. looks like,” Melton said.
Councilmember Vinny Palermo agreed with opponents’ concerns about the pool of candidates chosen for board appointments. He said the “bubble of candidates” needs to be made wider, but the issue isn’t worth denying Rodgers’ appointment. Council President Pete Festersen, who met Rodgers while working with her husband in Mayor Mike Fahey’s office, agreed and supported the appointment.
Councilmember Johnson said she opposed the appointment because there wasn’t enough time for her to speak with constituents. She said she was confident in Rodgers and that they could work effectively together.
“A five day notice of a committee appointment simply does not allow time for a city council representative to go out into the community and talk about this so that things that Ms. Melton mentioned regarding divisiveness could have been avoided,” Johnson said.
The city council approved newly drawn maps for the seven city council districts, along with an amendment to address issues raised by opponents during last week’s meeting. An area of North Downtown was previously set to be moved from District 2 to District 3, but Councilmembers Johnson and Danny Begley helped work out an agreement to keep the area in District 2.
Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse warned against the Omicron COVID-19 variant during her weekly update to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners Tuesday. The county has experienced two weeks of declining cases, but Huse said that trend could reverse as Omicron spreads.
After Huse’s update to the board, the Douglas County Health Department confirmed 10 cases of the variant identified in the county. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Omicron accounts for 73% of new infections nationwide, so Huse said it wasn’t a surprise to detect it in our community.
Hospitalizations remain extremely high, with the ICU capacity at 93% capacity Tuesday morning. Huse said that means they’re essentially full, and healthcare workers are having to take care of more patients than they normally would.
“It is not looking good,” Huse said. “You can hear and see the frustration and exhaustion in the faces of those people who are in those hospital situations who are trying to scramble to keep care moving in the community.”