Omaha’s Charter Review Convention ended its eight-week run Tuesday by rejecting two of the most controversial proposals considered by the group.
The final meeting of the group tasked with making recommendations for changes to the City Charter was among its most well-attended, with 20 people turning up for a two-hour-long public hearing.
Nearly all came to express support or disapproval for a late addition to the group’s agenda: a proposal that would have blocked the city from taking actions that burdened “a person’s exercise of religion or rights of conscience.”
The idea was offered by Steve Grasz, a charter committee member who is also a former chief deputy Nebraska attorney general and former legal counsel for the Nebraska Republican Party.
Grasz said the amendment was aimed at protecting rights that he believes are “under increasing attack,” and he pointed to Omaha’s 2012 adoption of an ordinance that protects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees from discrimination in the workplace.
That proposal, he said, makes “Christian businesses” into “outlaws” in Omaha. He said many business owners live in fear of lawsuits over expressing their views or refusing to provide service to gay or transgender customers.
Opponents of the idea, however, said it amounted to an end-run around a civil rights law.
After a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, 11 of the 21 committee members at the meeting voted against the proposal. Seven voted in favor and three abstained.
“When you pick and choose who to grant civil liberties to, it gets slippery,” said Symone Sanders, one of the committee members who voted no.
The convention also voted down a proposal from Mayor Jean Stothert to eliminate civil service protection for the Omaha fire chief. And members rejected an amended plan that would have removed similar protections for both the fire and police chiefs.
Some committee members said they worried that giving the mayor absolute power to dismiss those department heads could discourage qualified candidates from working toward the top jobs. Others worried about pressure from city officials.
“I think it would make the offices more subject to politics,” said James Cann, who voted no. “I don’t think a case has been made here that there’s some kind of systemic problem. There’s no showing of widespread and rampant corruption that perhaps the mayor ought to be able to stomp out.”
The convention did approve a handful of proposals that will be forwarded to the City Council for review.
Most were relatively minor tweaks to outdated language in the charter, though others could lead to more substantial changes for the city.
The group will forward a recommendation that the city line up its elections with the state election cycle. It also will send along a proposal that would change language in the section of the charter related to “powers of the city.”
Any recommendations, however, are not likely to be approved in the near future. The council does not have to weigh in on the issues within a specific period of time.
Once the council votes, it does not need to send measures immediately to the ballot for a public vote. That move can be delayed for several elections, depending on the council’s vote and the city’s budget for elections.