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City Charter

Mayor Stothert asks Omaha City Council to 'seriously consider' charter changes

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Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is urging City Council members to “seriously consider” all suggestions from the recently completed City Charter convention.

The 15-member group wrapped its final meeting Monday after approving 24 charter amendments to be considered by the council.

That includes a revised proposal from the Mayor’s Office that would allow the city’s mayors to remain in charge when traveling outside city limits.

The council’s president and vice president have raised concerns about the proposal.

In a World-Herald interview Tuesday, Stothert said the amendment would modernize Omaha’s out-of-town policy.

“With all of the tools we now have, I can certainly manage the city with my laptop, with my tablet, with my cellphone,” Stothert said. “I am accessible and people can get ahold of me 24/7 when I am out of town.”

Stothert’s proposal was one of the first brought before the city’s charter convention for consideration in May and one of the last approved by convention members.

The convention, formed about every 10 years, is made up of members appointed by the mayor and Omaha City Council to review and suggest changes to the city’s charter, the document that establishes the organization and procedures of Omaha’s government.

Originally, the Mayor’s Office proposed that an acting mayor would not be required to step in unless the mayor was out of town for more than 10 days or left the continental United States.

On Monday, the convention members voted on a revision to the proposal that would allow the mayor to remain in power while traveling for up to five days. In cases of an emergency, an acting mayor could step in — but only when the mayor is unavailable by phone for two hours or more.

If the City Council approves the proposals, they would appear on the ballot in November.

City Council President Pete Festersen said he’d be unlikely to support a change to the city’s current out-of-town policy, even with the emergency amendment.

“I think it’s important to have continuity and clear decision-making authority in case of an emergency, or in case someone is unreachable in a time of crisis,” Festersen said. “Anything can happen in a city at any time.”

Council Vice President Vinny Palermo said he is hesitant to support a change.

“I think there should always be somebody there, ready and working with the staff that’s in place in times of emergency,” Palermo said. “I think it’s necessary we have somebody in place at all times.”

Through a records request, The World-Herald found that Stothert was out of town 39 days in the first six months of 2022, meaning she was outside the city for about 21% of that time.

For many of those days, Festersen was acting mayor. On a few occasions, Palermo stepped into the role when both Festersen and Stothert were out of Omaha.

Stothert, who has served as mayor for more than nine years, said a broad look at her mayoral terms would show that her travel time outside the city has been minimal, and that the majority of her time away has been for no longer than four business days at a time.

The mayor noted that most of the convention’s amendments were passed unanimously, a factor she said council members should consider when the recommendations come before them.

“This group has spent a lot of time and effort reviewing the city charter to pass these amendments,” Stothert said. “I think (council members) should seriously consider that they put every one on the ballot for the rest of the citizens to vote on.”

The convention approved a wide range of changes in city procedures, such as:

Advertising for sealed, competitive bids for purchases of $50,000 or more, up from $20,000.

Requiring City Council approval for contracts of $50,000 or more, again up from $20,000.

Directing the Planning Board to consider affordable housing when discussing subdivision and zoning ordinances.

Including affordable housing and sustainable development as elements in the city’s Master Plan.

Adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected civil rights categories.

Stothert said she is proud of convention members for their professionalism and careful consideration of the charter amendments.

“We got a group of citizens willing to commit and put this much time into reviewing the entire city charter, going to those meetings and having good, honest, open conversation,” Stothert said. “I think that shows that it was a very worthwhile and good convention.”

jwade@owh.com, 402-444-1067

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Jessica covers city issues for The World-Herald, including public parks, transportation, Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office. Follow her on Twitter @Jess_Wade_OWH. Phone: 402-444-1067

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