The Douglas County Board joined the controversy over Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine on Tuesday by declaring its support for him in the wake of a Nebraska Democratic Party rebuke that led to him changing parties.
The board passed a resolution expressing "strong support for Don Kleine in the face of these unjust and unfair accusations."
"Having spent most of his legal career as a prosecutor, Don Kleine has fought hard for the rights of victims and has sought justice and fair treatment for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or national orientation," the resolution said.
The board's action was in reaction to a resolution that the state central committee of the Democratic Party passed in late September. The resolution criticized Kleine's handling of a case in which bar owner Jake Gardner shot and killed James Scurlock during a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Omaha on May 30.
Kleine switched to the Republican Party last week. He joined Nebraska GOP elected officials and party leaders for a rally in which the veteran prosecutor announced that he had voted for President Donald Trump in the coming election.
Board members Mary Ann Borgeson and P.J. Morgan, both Republicans, introduced the County Board resolution. It passed 4-0. Republican Clare Duda and Democrat Chris Rodgers joined Borgeson and Morgan.
Board members Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Boyle abstained after expressing objections to the resolution. Marc Kraft attended the meeting remotely and was not allowed to vote.
Cavanaugh and Boyle, while praising Kleine in general, opposed the county's resolution as divisive, unnecessary and a distraction from more important matters.
"It's not helping our community," Cavanaugh said.
In the Gardner case, Kleine declined to charge the bar owner, saying he had acted in self-defense. He later asked for a grand jury, which, led by special prosecutor Fred Franklin, indicted Gardner on charges of manslaughter, making terroristic threats, attempted first-degree assault and weapon use. Gardner killed himself in Oregon while authorities were waiting for him to turn himself in.
Kleine said in September that in asserting self-defense, Gardner's attorneys would have tried to establish Scurlock's propensity for violence. Kleine questioned whether Franklin presented evidence that Scurlock had been "terrorizing" others that night.
The state Democratic Party then passed a resolution that included "denouncing the actions of elected Democrat Don Kleine in his handling of the James Scurlock case in a way that perpetuated white supremacy and sparked deep division in Omaha."
On Tuesday, Omahan Cheryl Weston was one of several people who urged the County Board not to pass the resolution supporting Kleine. Weston said the resolution was political.
"This is not your responsibility," Weston said. "Your responsibility is to us in the community."
State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who is running against Rodgers as a write-in candidate, told the board: "Don't make a bad situation worse."
"Exercise statespersonship and just let this go away," Chambers said.
Borgeson said the resolution was not political. She said that she had thought of the idea before Kleine changed parties and that she had changed the original draft at Rodgers' request to remove any partisan references.
"This is one way for this board to show our support for someone who has dedicated his life to the citizens of Douglas County," Borgeson said.
Rodgers also said the board's resolution was not political. He said he has known Kleine for 20 years, is friends with him and considers him a person of integrity. He said Kleine, after declining to charge Gardner, allowed Rodgers and Omaha City Council member Ben Gray "to make our case for a grand jury."
"I don't know Don to be a white supremacist," Rodgers said.
Boyle said he loves Kleine. He called the Democratic Party rebuke of Kleine "stupid."
"But that doesn't mean we should drag this out any further," Boyle said. "It divides the board, which is not a big deal, but it divides our community."