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Omaha City Council approves plastic bag ban; mayor says she'll veto the measure

It’s hard to make a focused Omaha City Council crowd say, “Aw!”

But science teacher Shelley Brown did so Tuesday when she walked five fifth- and sixth-graders in their St. James/Seton Catholic School uniforms to the City Council lectern to testify in support of a city ban on plastic bags.

Students in skirts and polo shirts stepped one by one to the microphone, each offering a separate part of a presentation on some of the dangers to human and animal health of plastic pollution, including plastic bags.

Their testimony brought smiles to ban supporters and opponents alike during a public hearing that lasted more than two hours .

The ban passed 4-3, but its futur remains in doubt after Mayor Jean Stothert pledged to veto it. The council would need a fifth vote to override the mayor’s veto.

Sponsors Ben Gray and Pete Festersen supported the ban; so did council members Vinny Palermo and Chris Jerram. Voting against were Rich Pahls, Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding.

One of the St. James presenters, Kiana Kaldenberg, said she had learned a lot from each of the speakers, including ban opponents who mostly argued the value of letting businesses continue their shift away from plastic bags.

Her sentiment was echoed by former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, who spoke as a lobbyist for the plastics industry. He said people on each side of the debate had shared facts, and that some on each side had exaggerated.

He also said a ban would accomplish less than a nonbinding resolution to encourage retailers to move away from plastic bags supported by the mayor and three members of the City Council who voted against the measure.

The lone vote against the ban who left the door slightly ajar was councilman Pahls, a former educator who was touched by the mix of elementary, high school and college students who spoke in support of the ban.

He compared the effort to ban plastic bags to state and local efforts to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. He said the effort took years of education and outreach and failure. He said the bag ban’s time, too, would come.

Gray and Festersen passed an amended ban that would prohibit single-use plastic bags in all retailers larger than 10,000 square feet. That’s about twice the size of a large convenience store and covers such merchants as Hy-Vee, Walmart Walgreens and Big Lots.

Festersen said he would pursue a veto override because he owed it to the thousands of people and energized base of young people who support the ban. He also said reducing plastic pollution and litter is worth it.

Public testimony tilted heavily in favor of the ban, as it did for a previous version of the ban. Many argued the dangers of plastic pollution to the land, air and water, and its propensity to show back up in food people eat.

Those who spoke against the ban included Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association. She and others against the ban advocated for working with retailers to encourage efforts already underway.

She also, like Stothert, argued that the city should study its litter problems. Stothert has said the city needs to know more about what’s causing its litter problems before it singles out one source of pollution over another.

Festersen and Gray have said they would support such a litter study and that the delayed implementation of their plastic bag ban, which goes into effect in January 2022, gives the city time to gather baseline data.

The mayor said earlier this week that she thinks the ban would not accomplish its goals, in particular reducing litter, because plastic bags make up so little of the city’s litter, and the ban allows smaller stores to keep using plastic bags.

Advocates of the ban, including David Corbin of the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the measure a start in the right direction.

Creighton University economist Kevin Gomez, who leads the school’s Institute for Economic Inquiry, said the ban would be ineffective because people would use more plastic trash bags and paper bags, which he said do more damage to the environment.

He described the ban as a way to coerce changes in behavior that typically require buy-in to work. He told council members to “throw the ban away.”

But Kaldenberg, in a brief interview at the County-City Building after she spoke, said she hopes the mayor won’t end up vetoing the ban.

“I personally think she should not veto it,” she said, smiling in her yellow polo and blue plaid skirt. “For us kids, we have a longer life left to live.”

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House committee approves $241 million to replace equipment destroyed in Offutt flood

WASHINGTON — Federal money to help restore flood-soaked Offutt Air Force Base is moving bit by bit through Congress.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved the latest batch of funding, which is intended to replace crew training simulators and other electronic equipment destroyed in the flood.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., offered the amendment to transfer $241 million to a special procurement account to address the situation.

Arguing for the amendment to his fellow committee members, Fortenberry noted that the equipment supports the Offutt-based 55th Wing’s fleet of RC-135 reconnaissance jets.

Loss of $234 million in gear at Offutt poses risk to national defense strategy, Don Bacon says

“It does electronic surveillance around the world,” Fortenberry said of the RC-135. “It helps save lives. It’s not the most glamorous aircraft. It has a yoke not a stick ... but nonetheless it is a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure.”

The cost to replace the damaged equipment had been estimated at about $234 million. Fortenberry said his amendment also includes money for some needs at damaged Marine bases.

Fortenberry said the money would be transferred from a research account dealing with advanced missile systems, money the Air Force says is no longer needed.

Fortenberry told the committee that approving the money was a fiscally responsible step because without the simulators training must be done on the actual aircraft — an approach that puts additional wear and tear on expensive systems.

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The committee approved the amendment on a voice vote.

“This is very good news for Offutt,” Fortenberry told The World-Herald following the vote.

Fortenberry said he intended to vote against the underlying legislation at the committee level even though he supports most of it.

He described that as simply part of the ongoing negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the overall bill.

In addition to the simulator money, the House included about $120 million for Offutt as part of a disaster supplemental spending bill that still must pass the Senate before going to the president’s desk.

Fortenberry offered another amendment for $300 million that was included in committee-passed military construction legislation. That bill also must pass the full House and Senate.

NU law school does well placing grads in jobs; new Creighton law dean says school will work to improve

The University of Nebraska College of Law excelled at placing its Class of 2018 into jobs, while the Creighton School of Law sat in the middle of the law school pack.

There are various ways to analyze job placement for law graduates, but in two key areas, the NU College of Law ranked sixth out of 201 law schools across the country and 26th in the other.

Creighton ranked 91st and 99th. Creighton will have a new law dean July 1, and he hopes to improve the school’s job-placement record.


Joshua Fershee

“Employment and being ready for employment is the top priority,” said the incoming law dean at Creighton, Joshua Fershee. He currently is a professor and director of several programs at the West Virginia University College of Law.

The data for the rankings came from the American Bar Association and was organized by online publisher The tracking method used gives graduates up to 10 months after leaving campus to find work.

One measure looks at the placement of graduates into full-time, long-term law jobs requiring bar passage. The other includes that group but adds jobs where law school simply gave the graduate an advantage over other applicants.

Nebraska placed 81.91% of the Class of 2018 in the first category and 93.62% in the second. Creighton placed 68.27% and 80.77% respectively.


Paige Gade

Paige Gade, a 2018 graduate of the NU College of Law, now works in corporate law at Koley Jessen in Omaha.

Gade, of Lincoln, said she was pleased with the way the NU law college assisted her in the job hunt. “They do a great job of hosting firms and giving students networking opportunities,” she said. She said one reason she went to the NU law school is that it has an excellent career development office.

Richard Moberly, dean of the NU College of Law, said in an email that he was pleased but unsurprised by his college’s placement performance, because “we have terrific students.”

“Employers in Nebraska and around the country recognize that hiring a Nebraska law graduate means they will be getting a smart, hard-working, and thoughtful lawyer for their organization,” Moberly wrote.


Richard Moberly

Tasha Everman, an assistant dean and director of career development at the NU College of Law, said the college requires third-year law students to check in at least once with the career development office. Everman and fellow career counselor Kala Mueller talk with them about employment prospects and help students draw up a plan, if necessary, Everman said.

Everman said her office also maintains contact with graduates who continue to seek work and provides them with job leads and connections.

The NU college enrolls 130 to 140 students in its first-year law class. The Creighton law school enrolls 100 to 110 in that class.

Fershee (pronounced Fer-SHAY) said he didn’t want to talk about statistics at Creighton yet, other than to say that job placement is “something I want to improve on.”

Creighton’s law school has undergone transition and turmoil. Two years ago, a consultant analyzed the atmosphere of the school and found it “toxic,” with “contentiousness and low morale” and a “serious erosion of collegiality” among professors.

Paul McGreal stepped down as dean in 2017 after two years. Fershee said he had the sense that the law school’s faculty feels “it’s time to move forward.” He said the faculty members care deeply about the students, and he is optimistic about leading the law school.

His wife, Kendra, also is on the West Virginia law faculty and will join the Creighton faculty, Fershee said. Kendra Fershee ran as a Democrat last fall for Congress from West Virginia and was defeated.

They put a total of more than 30,000 miles on two cars during the campaign, Fershee said, and “I’ve never seen anyone work harder” than his wife.

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After her run for office, he said, his wife said he should pursue his leadership goals.

“We’re really happy where we are,” he said of West Virginia. “Being willing to leave at all should be an indication” of the opportunity at Creighton.

He said West Virginia’s law school knows about competition. The law schools of the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University are within 75 miles of the West Virginia school, he said. But besides competing with each other, he said, they also work together on some programs.

He said he expects a “friendly rivalry” with the NU College of Law. Among those who congratulated him on winning the Creighton dean position, he said, was Moberly, NU’s law dean.