Omaha City Council votes to limit health director’s authority

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Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 10:14 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The Omaha City Council has voted to limit the authority of the Douglas County health director.

Instead of enacting health measures and mandates on her own, the health director now must have approval from the city council.

Tuesday’s 5-2 vote came after several weeks of tense debate and hours in the council chambers at Omaha City Hall.

“It’s basically what I thought would probably happen,” Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse tells 6 News just minutes after the vote. “I had a couple of really good conversations with council members last week so this wasn’t unexpected, I would’ve liked to have a seen a few more of our recommendations incorporated into the existing ordinance, however, I think this is a really good start to really what’s trying to be accomplished in terms of balancing our needs across public health and government.”

The new procedure requires that the health director provides a recommendation to the mayor and city council when it comes to enacting a procedure like a health measure or mask mandate during public health emergencies. The recommendation will go to the mayor to be reviewed, and then will be sent to the city council for a final vote.

“It really remains to be seen how this will end up looking in real life, of course anytime were making laws or changing ordinances, it looks great on paper and then they have to actually be put to the test,” Huse told 6 News when asked if this is the best decision for the city.

Councilman Vinny Palermo, who proposed the change, said he believes it will help end the Attorney General’s lawsuit against the city over Dr. Huse’s mask mandate that was issued in January.

He’s concerned the result of the lawsuit would take power away from city leaders.

“The bottom line is, the reason for this proposal is the lawsuit because we want our decisions to be made locally,” he says. Palermo also added that he has never doubted the education, knowledge, and experience of Dr. Huse, and hopes the new amendment will take pressure off of her when making decisions like these for the city.

“My biggest concerns, which I voiced last week, are really to ensure that we still have the ability to act in our day-to-day roles and also to ensure that when the time comes that we need to respond quickly to a public health crisis, that were just able to move through whatever that process is, very quickly,” Huse said to the council.

Councilman Danny Begley agreed with Palermo but told Huse he will always follow her advice and the advice of local infectious disease experts she collaborates with.

“I’m supporting his recommendation on this because, one, I don’t want this litigation to go forward, and I don’t want you to get stripped of your authority, I know this isn’t perfect,” Begley says.

Council President Pete Festersen and Councilwoman Juanita Johnson both voted against the ordinance change.

“I’m not convinced what we’re doing today does satisfy any lawsuit we have right now against the city, nor do I think we should be making decisions based on those lawsuits. so that to me isn’t a convincing reason to approve this yet today,” Festersen said just before the vote.

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