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Embattled Bellevue police chief to get $78K a year for retirement, plus $136K in new city job

Bellevue’s police chief, who previously was placed on leave for a year while the city investigated allegations of “dishonest and deceptive conduct,” will retire at the end of the month and take a newly created position with the city.

Mark Elbert, 51, will retire as the city’s top cop at the end of the year and then begin work as Bellevue’s community development director after the City Council approved a settlement agreement Tuesday.

He’ll make $136,572 a year in that role. Most recently, Elbert was earning $128,814 as police chief.

Under the settlement, Elbert also will receive $78,000 a year beginning on his 55th birthday in 2023. Those payments are in lieu of the police pension he would have received had he remained police chief, according to the city.

The payments initially will be made from his retirement account, then from city funds once the retirement funds are depleted.

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Police department employees must meet certain age and years of service requirements to receive full pension benefits.

In all, he’ll receive more than $214,000 a year beginning in September 2023, when he turns 55.

In his new role as community development director, Elbert will be tasked with “end-to-end responsibility for all building” in the city, as well as redevelopment, reinvestment and capital projects, according to the job description.

He will oversee the planning department, emergency management and community relations, and will serve as “incident commander” in the event of a citywide emergency.

Some of those responsibilities were combined this fall into one position. Elbert was the “most qualified candidate for the role,” according to city documents.

In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, Elbert said the job requires a lot of administrative-type work: streamlining how things get done and working with community stakeholders.

Mayor Rusty Hike said after Tuesday’s meeting that police chiefs often make good matches for city administration jobs. He pointed to Sarpy County Administrator Dan Hoins as an example of that: Hoins was chief of police in Papillion before he became Papillion’s administrator.

At his request, Elbert was placed on administrative leave in September 2017 after the city’s police union voted 72-1 to tell the city administration that the union had lost confidence in Elbert.

Along with the no-confidence vote, the union lobbed multiple allegations against Elbert, accusing the chief of instructing a sergeant to deceive other department members and hide information from city administration; coercing union members to change the results of qualifications testing and evaluations; and making derogatory comments toward women and racial minorities.

Elbert has consistently denied those claims. Asked Tuesday if it was a challenge to lead a department in which some officers had expressed no confidence in him, Elbert said no.

“I have nothing but great things to say about our men and women over there,” Elbert said.

Elbert was reinstated as police chief a year after being placed on leave, collecting $122,409 during that period. The city, at the time led by a different mayoral administration, offered few explanations as to why the investigation took a year.

Hike, who took the reins of the city last December, said in January that he was reviewing the claims against Elbert. No further action was taken.

Documents related to Elbert’s settlement state that “continued potential litigation and personnel problems” impair Bellevue’s ability to function “so long as Elbert remains” police chief.

The documents state that Elbert claims he has been “defamed, slandered and unlawfully harassed by employees of the city.”

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“We’ve vacated a spot in the police department that the police union’s had some contention with, so we’ll have a new start there,” Hike said. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Last fall, Elbert filed two libel and defamation lawsuits. One, against Gary Young, an attorney for the Bellevue Police Officers Association, accuses Young of libeling and defaming Elbert after Elbert authorized an internal investigation against “a Bellevue police employee” who also served as a union officer.

The second alleges that James Maguire, president of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police, libeled and defamed Elbert by publicly alleging that three investigations into police department employees were motivated by anti-union bias.

Both suits were active as of Tuesday, court records showed.

Language in the settlement states that approval of the agreement should not be considered an admission of wrongdoing by Elbert or the city.

Young, the police union’s attorney, said Tuesday that the union had no comment on Elbert’s settlement or new job.

In addition to the payments Elbert will receive in lieu of his pension, Bellevue has agreed to: pay out half of his sick leave up to 960 hours; transfer up to 100 hours of sick leave to his new position; and pay out his remaining vacation.

If Elbert dies before 12 years from the date the settlement is approved, the city will pay the in-lieu-of-pension payments to his surviving spouse or children up to the 12-year mark.

In his new role, if Elbert is fired, he’ll receive a lump sum payment equal to six months of his base salary.


Photos: OWH front pages through the years

Photos: OWH front pages through the years​

State_and_regional
Nebraska-related items included in massive $1.4 trillion spending plan passed by House

WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday approved a massive $1.4 trillion spending package after throwing in something for just about everyone.

Nebraska’s trio of Republican House members supported the package and its hundreds of millions of dollars for military facilities in the state.

“This is an important day for America as a bipartisan agreement was reached to fund the government, stave off a government shutdown and fund priorities important to Nebraskans and our critical piece of military infrastructure, Offutt Air Force Base,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said in a statement.

Most of the money for Nebraska’s military installations is intended to help recover from this year’s devastating floods.

Fortenberry is a member of the House Appropriations Committee responsible for crafting spending bills and provided the following breakdown of some Nebraska-related line items:

The package allocates money for a host of priorities, including rural broadband, school safety, election security, and 3.1% raises for military personnel and civilian employees.

The package is expected to pass the Senate this week. And as the last 2019 legislative train leaving the station, all manner of unrelated items got thrown on board at the last minute.

Among the provisions in more than 2,000 pages: an increase in the legal age for tobacco smoking and vaping to 21 and an extension of the Export-Import Bank that helps U.S. companies sell products overseas.

It includes a slew of tax-related provisions: extending tax credits for various industries such as biodiesel, correcting a glitch from the last Republican tax bill that affected surviving families of military personnel killed in action and repealing various taxes that were implemented as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, supported the package, which passed as two separate bills.

“These investments in Iowa will be key to increasing access to health care and a quality education, investing in our rural communities, growing small business investments, helping our seniors, ensuring environmental protections and honoring our responsibilities to our veterans,” Axne said in a press release. “In addition, I’m happy to see much-needed tax provisions to extend critical biofuel tax credits and permanently repeal health care taxes that would hurt Iowans.”

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Taxpayer watchdog advocates blasted the package for contributing to the already-rising national debt — a point Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., acknowledged.

But the Omaha congressman said there were too many good proposals in the package to oppose it.

The measure represents both parties coming together to strike a compromise, Bacon said, and the spending levels ultimately work out to an increase of a little less than 3%.

“I don’t know that we could have gotten a better deal with split government,” Bacon said. “And 2.5%, within inflation, is reasonable.”

He also talked about the impact the funding for Offutt will have after the terrible destruction the base experienced earlier this year.

“It’s going to make Offutt bigger and better by the time we’re done,” Bacon said. “That’s a win.”

Photos: Flood damage at Offutt Air Force Base six months later

State_and_regional
Sen. McCollister launches tweet storm over pro-impeachment talk; state GOP leaders back Trump

LINCOLN — Republican State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha launched a tweet storm this week by asserting that Republicans “all over the country” support the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

McCollister, who appeared on national political talk shows in August following criticism of the GOP president, had 12,600 likes and 3,900 retweets as of Tuesday evening for his initial tweet, which was picked up by Newsweek and The Hill. It was in response to a tweet by Trump on Monday, stating that the impeachment was a “hoax” and the “greatest con job in the history of American politics.”

“The Fake News Media, and their partner, the Democrat Party, are working overtime to make life for the United Republican Party, and all it stands for, as difficult as possible!” Trump tweeted.

McCollister fired back: “There are Republicans ALL OVER the country who want you impeached. We don’t fall for some cult of personality. We’ve read the constitution.”

Reaction on Twitter was mostly positive, with several responses praising McCollister as a “patriot” and voicing similar concerns about Trump. A few tweets were critical, calling the state senator a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) who ought to leave the party.

On Tuesday, two Nebraska GOP leaders said McCollister is among a very small minority of Republicans who support impeachment and other candidates for president. They stopped short of telling McCollister that he ought to switch parties — a suggestion made by the state GOP’s executive director in August — but did say he’s free to do so.

“(Sen.) McCollister is on a very small island united with very few people,” said J.L. Spray, a Lincoln attorney and national GOP committeeman. “I think people like what the president has done. If it’s about style points, he’ll never get a gold medal, but they like that they can get through the performance.”

State GOP Chairman Dan Welch, an Omaha attorney, said that 85% to 90% of Republicans back Trump, and that hasn’t changed in recent weeks. McCollister, he said, “hasn’t acted like a Republican for a long time.”

The House of Representatives is slated to vote Wednesday on the articles of impeachment advanced by the House Judiciary Committee. They state that the president abused his power in seeking to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating a political rival, Joe Biden, and then obstructed Congress, which was investigating the affair.

John McCollister

McCollister, whose late father was U.S. Rep. John Y. McCollister, R-Neb., acknowledged that “a great many, but not all” Republicans back Trump. But he said it was “crazy” that the GOP isn’t willing to look at candidates other than the sitting president.

“I think the two articles (of impeachment) the House has come up with are fairly stated,” he said.

It’s not the first time McCollister’s criticism has riled up Republicans. In August, he accused Republicans of “enabling white supremacy” by not condemning Trump’s rhetoric, which McCollister said continually stokes “racist fears.”

McCollister’s tweets then brought him an avalanche of new followers and appearances on two talk shows, but also prompted State GOP Executive Director Ryan Hamilton to tell him to leave the party.

McCollister said Tuesday that he has no intention of leaving the party and that his tweets this week gained him 4,000 new followers. He now has 52,700 followers. He added that his 38-year-old son, Dan, fashions his tweets, but he approves them.

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McCollister won reelection to his west-central Omaha district in 2018 with 59% of the vote but is barred from running again due to term limits.

According to state election figures, Republicans dominate voter registration in Nebraska, with 577,263 registered Republicans. In the past year, the number of registered Republicans has dropped by 5,667. Registered Democrats have also decreased, by 6,600, to 355,640.

The number of registered nonpartisans rose during the past year, from 258,526 to 260,479.

Typically, the number of registered voters declines following a presidential election, then begins to rise as another vote for U.S. president nears.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

State_and_regional
'Flood heroes' honored for grit, selflessness; 'it could not have been more Nebraskan'

LINCOLN — Less talk, more action.

That’s the motto that guided Gretna resident Autumn Rock in the days and weeks after Nebraska was hit with widespread flooding that destroyed homes, mangled roads and bridges, and put the tenacity of residents to the test.

Rock isn’t a first responder or a member of any disaster relief organization. She’s just an ordinary citizen.

But with help from Valley resident Nick Goldapp she sprang into action, coordinating airboat rescues and collecting donations of hay, fencing and other supplies from across the country to assist farmers and ranchers whose fields and livestock were overcome by rushing water.

Goldapp put at least 30,000 miles on his pickup delivering donations across the state. Rock and Goldapp exchanged close to 1,200 phone calls in April alone as offers of and calls for help flooded in.

“When I need help, I hope my neighbors help me,” Goldapp said.

“That’s just what we do,” Rock said. “Less talk, more action.”

Rock was among several dozen volunteer firefighters, Nebraska National Guard members and residents — all deemed “flood heroes” — honored Tuesday at the Nebraska Capitol by Gov. Pete Ricketts and first lady Susanne Shore for their work during and after the devastating flooding in mid-March.

THE WORLD-HERALD 

Volunteers race to stave off floodwater by sandbagging along Old U.S. Highway 275 between Morningside Road and Downing Street in Fremont, Nebraska, on March 16.

The honorees were “people who took direct action to save somebody else’s life,” Ricketts said — people who embodied the grit, selflessness and can-do spirit for which Nebraskans are known.

After putting out a call for stories of heroism, Ricketts and Shore said they received hundreds of nominations for flood heroes. Tuesday’s ceremony was the first of several events planned over the next year to pay tribute to them.

Out of the “worst, most widespread natural disasters our state has ever experienced,” Ricketts said, helpers and heroes emerged. From Schuyler to Fremont, Waterloo to North Bend, they organized hay drops for hungry cattle, served meals to evacuees, and rescued panicked people and pets trapped in houses and cars, often on little sleep and sometimes while their own homes were threatened by floodwaters.

“It was neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends, Nebraskans helping strangers ... it could not have been more Nebraskan,” Ricketts said.

Rock said the work she took part in was a true team effort that involved generous donors and volunteers.

“I had hundreds of people who came from across the country to help,” she said. “I’m accepting this not just for myself, but all of them.”

Those recognized by the governor included a group of seven Fremont and Cedar Bluffs volunteer firefighters — Matthew Baker, Logan Kahler, Wayne Kreifels, Chris Lichtenberg, Nick Morris, Richard Osterloh and Rick Schutt — who suffered hypothermia after spending up to two hours stranded in wind-whipped, freezing-cold waters after their airboats capsized while they tried to rescue a family in Dodge County whose house was surrounded by the overflowing Elkhorn River.

James Wilke

The rescuers were plucked out of the water by Nebraska National Guard helicopters. After being treated at a hospital and resting up, they went back out to help with more rescues and evacuations, said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

National Guard air crew and coordinators were celebrated, too, including the operations staff who coordinate missions and gather information, work that’s “not glamorous but essential,” said Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska’s adjutant general. National Guard crews rescued 113 people and flew in dark, windy, dangerous conditions that rivaled any combat zone, he said.

The wife, mother and children of rural Columbus resident James Wilke were on hand to collect his posthumous honor. Wilke was one of five Nebraskans who died during the flooding. He was attempting to rescue a stranded driver in his tractor when a bridge over the swollen Shell Creek collapsed and he drowned.

The Pierce Volunteer Fire Department was one of 17 fire departments singled out. Many smaller, rural communities depended on departments staffed by volunteers to monitor flood conditions and carry out evacuations and water rescues.

Steve Dolesh

“We don’t do it for this reason by any means, but it is nice,” Pierce Fire Chief Steve Dolesh said of the recognition. He also gave credit to Andrew Elsberry, another Pierce resident and honoree, who used his airboat to rescue 12 people over several days.

Dolesh said some members of his volunteer crew took off from their day jobs for nearly a week so they could help respond in the thick of the flood. They slept in the fire station for days straight when flooding left the roads back to their houses impassable.

And after experiencing disaster in March, the Pierce fire department is ready for what next year’s spring thaw could bring. Water and ice rescue crews are training for rescues and operations in difficult conditions. A new airboat for the department should be delivered in February.

“We are so much more prepared now than we were the first time,” Dolesh said.

Photos: Major flooding hit Nebraska and Iowa towns in March 2019