Omaha City Council to consider charter amendment recommendations

Mayor-appointed panel put forth proposed adjustments on succession of power, contract rules, housing priorities, protected groups
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Published: Jul. 12, 2022 at 9:58 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The Omaha Charter Study Convention has this year recommended 24 amendments to the City Council, calling for — among other things — a structure of responsibility at the city’s highest level of government in the event of an emergency.

A Tuesday memo from Mayor Jean Stothert’s office summarized the proposals from the panel, put in place in April.

“I am very grateful to the Convention members for a thorough review and thoughtful debate of changes to our Charter that prepare our city for the future,” Stothert said in the letter.

Included among the recommendations are guidelines about the City Council president stepping in as “acting mayor,” taking on mayoral duties in the event the mayor is away for more than five business days — with advanced notice of such an absence — or should the mayor request such action or become disabled. It would also kick in should the mayor not be able to be contacted within two hours during a state of emergency. The charter amendment also stipulates that similar responsibilities would fall to the vice president of the City Council, should both the mayor and council president be away or unable to serve in the role when needed.

The suggested change was brought to the charter review convention by the Mayor in May.

“A lot of the discussions we had in the convention, it was very thorough, it was comprehensive, and it was centered around updating language for 2022,″ says small business owner John Fox, who was appointed by the mayor to the charter review convention.

“We’re in a different time with technology and access to information, with smartphones readily available, zoom functions, all different types of ways of communicating and in the same way that we all do business as professionals at anywhere, we found that that can be done by our mayor in the same fashion,” he adds.

The current charter states that the council president becomes acting mayor during any period in which the mayor is absent from the city.

When the mayor is absent, the responsibility would currently fall first to Councilman Pete Festersen, who represents the city’s 1st District. He served as council president from 2013-2015 and was elected to the position again in 2021; and then to 4th Dist. City Councilman Vinny Palermo, elected to the post of council vice president in 2019 and again in 2021.

If approved in the coming weeks, the amendment would not give anyone the ability to act in the mayor’s place for five days if she’s out of town.

“I sure appreciate the hard work by the charter review committee, but ultimately I think this is just going to be a resolution to a non-existent problem,” says Councilmember Vinny Palermo.

Palermo says it worries him to think about if something should happen in that five day period.

“I mean, there’s a reason they call them emergencies, we can’t tell what the future’s going to predict, when situations or unfortunate circumstances arise, and it’s good to know when the mayors not going to be there, and its good to know whos going to be in charge working with the staff we have in place,” he adds.

Council President Festersen agrees.

John Fox says he and other charter study members were thinking about technology and the impacts from the pandemic when they agreed on this change, among others.

“We were thinking to ourselves, think about all the ways we were able to do our work, make life decisions, pay bills, look for jobs, all those different things we were able to do remotely,” he says. “I think that we all have confidence in the mayor or future mayor to do this appropriately.”

The mayor declined to comment on the matter to 6 News.

A related recommendation puts the longest-serving member of the council into the mayor’s office in the event of a public disaster — should it leave the mayor dead or unable to serve — until the next city election.

Other recommendations from the city charter panel include:

  • An increase in the threshold amount of city contracts requiring council approval, from $20,000 to $50,000, with a similar threshold requiring sealed competitive bids.
  • Increasing the city’s cash reserve to from a maximum of 8% to a maximum of 12% of general appropriations.
  • Requiring the planning board to “consider affordable housing and sustainability of development when considering subdivision and zoning ordinances.”
  • Consider sexual orientation and gender identity protected categories.
  • Requiring a public report on any outstanding bonds that includes the principal, rate, terms, balance owed, and anticipated total costs of the bonds.
  • Requiring that those selected to serve on a future Charter Study Convention be 18 years old and living in the city, or annexed part of the city, for at least six months prior.

Read the mayor’s memo on the amendments

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