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Bellevue officials who leak information could be removed from office under city proposals

Leak private information in Bellevue, lose your office.

That’s one potential consequence elected officials in the city could face if they disseminate information from meetings not open to the public under a pair of proposed ordinances being considered by the Bellevue City Council.

A lot of what local governments do is conducted in the public sphere. Meetings of city councils, school boards and planning commissions are generally open to anyone interested in how taxpayer money is being used.

Those bodies sometimes enter closed sessions — also called executive sessions — that are not open to the public.

Under one of the proposals, any dissemination of information from such a session by an elected official could result in an “allegation of misconduct.” The second proposal, which specifically addresses misconduct, states that a finding of such misconduct could result in that official’s removal from office.

The proposals were drafted to give the city recourse in the event that a council member acts inappropriately or leaks information that wasn’t meant for public consumption, Jim Ristow, Bellevue’s city administrator, told The World-Herald on Tuesday.

He said the city won’t be quick to remove someone from office; punishments for misconduct or leaking could also result in fines or reprimands.

“If you’re held to a standard, chances are you won’t dip below that standard if you know there’s some type of accountability behind it,” Ristow said.

The proposed ordinances, which will be discussed during a public hearing at the council’s Nov. 5 meeting, also would require people who aren’t elected officials or city employees to sign confidentiality agreements before participating in closed sessions.

If the leaking ordinance passes, it appears that Bellevue would be the only metro area city to explicitly articulate a consequence for elected officials who pass on information from closed meetings.

None of the city charters of Omaha, Papillion, La Vista or Gretna have language that addresses the matter, and none of those cities require participants of closed sessions to sign confidentiality agreements.

Ristow said Fremont and Grand Island have ordinances related to misconduct. The World-Herald couldn’t confirm that information before the publication of this story.

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Paul Kratz, Omaha’s city attorney, said closed sessions are necessary and helpful because they help preserve sensitive information.

Sometimes, that means the city is discussing an employee’s job performance in relation to his or her salary. In land acquisition deals, Kratz said, cities don’t want landowners to inflate the price of land simply because the city is interested.

“Not everything can be done with the public looking over the shoulder of the administration,” Kratz said.

Kratz has no connection with the Bellevue proposals.

Ristow said Bellevue began discussing the proposals in July after a council member told a real estate agent about an ongoing negotiation between the city and a different real estate agent. Those negotiations had not been made public at the time.

Ristow declined to offer more detail about the deal or say which council member leaked it.

Bellevue’s proposals come shortly after Councilwoman Kathy Welch improperly voted on a real estate deal that she presented to the city in a closed session.

Ristow said the proposals in question have nothing to do with Welch, noting again that the city began considering a misconduct ordinance in the summer.

The language of the misconduct ordinance essentially sets up a trial-like process for the removal of an elected official. At a hearing set by the city administrator, the official in question could call witnesses, make statements and have an attorney. The city attorney would act as the prosecuting attorney.

Then, if three-fourths of the council vote to find the person guilty of misconduct, his or her seat would be declared vacant.

Omaha, Kratz said, has never had a situation in which details of a closed sessions were prematurely made public. Nor has Papillion dealt with loose-lipped officials, spokesman Trent Albers said.

Said Albers: “I think all of our officials understand that what was discussed in closed session is meant to be confidential.”

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date for the public hearing. The date has been corrected.

8 local mayors and their salaries

#Metoo leader unveils new hashtag to mobilize voters

The founder of #MeToo is using the second anniversary of the movement to launch a new effort intended to mobilize voters heading into the 2020 election.

The new hashtag #MeTooVoter was unveiled Tuesday, on the same day as the fourth Democratic presidential debate and reflects a frustration among activists that issues of sexual violence and harassment have largely been absent from the debate stage and campaign trail.

"You can't have 12 million people respond to a hashtag in this country and they not be constituents, taxpayers and voters," #MeToo founder Tarana Burke said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We need these candidates to see us as a power base. So many people engage with survivors from a place of pity."

A record number of women are running in the 2020 Democratic field, and women will be a pivotal bloc in the primary and the general election. Still, women are too often treated like a special interest group rather than the majority of the American electorate, said Aijen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is partnering with #MeToo on voter education, mobilization and turnout efforts over the next year.

"The whole point of #MeTooVoter is to say that survivors are a huge political force and incredibly motivated in this moment," Poo said. "We're going to be calling on anyone who's serious about governing and leading this country forward to actually answer for how they're going to make this country more safe."

Burke said that nearly a year into the Democratic primary, none of the 2020 hopefuls has spoken to her as they have shaped their presidential platforms, which she said points to a lack of urgency even amid a climate of increased awareness around the issue.

Burke said she is considering a town hall around the issue to hear more fully from candidates about their stances.

It was on the one-year anniversary of when #MeToo became a viral hashtag that Burke was still reeling from the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination hearing focused largely on allegations of sexual assault when he was a teenager.

The hearing, watched by millions and seen as a major turning point in the MeToo movement, was seen by some women as a setback to efforts to hold men accountable for sexual violence. For Burke, the moment was a turning point.

"It was the first time we saw survivors en masse come out and put their bodies on the line for this issue," Burke said. "It was the moment I realized we had to form as an organization. People are willing to stand up, march, talk, come out in the rain. People are ready for this moment."

Supermajority co-founder Cecile Richards said the issue of sexual violence is something the organization, which is a #MeTooVoter partner, has identified as an election-year priority among women.

"Any candidate who wants the support of women, I hope understands the importance of speaking to the issues that are on the minds of millions of voters in this country," Richards said. "Women don't feel safe in America. There's been very little conversation about this, and that's unacceptable."

'Do the census': Skipped residents deny communities a fair share of resources, officials say

When historic flooding this spring left much of Nebraska underwater, the distribution of federal disaster aid to counties was in part determined through a formula that used data from the last U.S. Census.

Gov. Pete Ricketts offered that Tuesday as one of the many reasons it’s critical for Nebraska to get an accurate count in the 2020 Census — now less than six months away. The once-a-decade national headcount not only determines levels of federal funding for programs in housing, education, transportation and health care, but also is used to help determine political boundaries for elected offices from Congress on down to the local school board.

“It is important that we do the census,” Ricketts said. “Our founders knew that.”

Ricketts joined Census Bureau officials and others Tuesday to officially kick off preparations for the April 2020 count, seeking to raise public awareness and boost recruitment of the 2,700 temporary Nebraska workers who will be needed to complete it.

The 2020 Census will be the first in which households will be encouraged to fill out the form online, though paper forms and answering census questions by phone will also be available.

Census outreach is particularly important when it comes to hard-to-count populations like Native Americans, immigrants, children and the elderly. The Trump administration’s unsuccessful effort to add a citizenship question to the questionnaire and subsequent efforts to collect citizenship data from states anyway has particularly fanned fears that immigrant communities could be undercounted.

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However, regional Census Bureau officials and several speakers during the kickoff event at the University of Nebraska at Omaha stressed that everyone should participate in the 2020 Census without any such concerns. All responses are confidential, with the Census Bureau barred by law from disclosing information that could identify any person or household.

“The census is safe and secure,” said Dennis Johnson, Census Bureau deputy director for the region that includes Nebraska.

Lazaro Arturo Spindola, executive director of the Nebraska Latino American Commission, said there are more than 200,000 Latinos in Nebraska, most of whom know all about the census and will participate without any concerns. But he said there are some who come from countries where census information has been used as a tool of oppression.

“Here, it is not the way that works,” he said.

Thomas Warren, the former Omaha police chief who now heads the Urban League of Nebraska, also emphasized that census information is anonymous and can’t be shared with law enforcement, the courts or other federal agencies.

“When residents are not counted, it denies our neighborhoods and our communities a fair share of resources that are necessary to meet the needs of our children and our families,” Warren said.

Indeed, a study last year estimated that for every Nebraskan missed in the count, the state would lose out on $21,000 in federal dollars over the next decade — a figure that could easily add up to millions of dollars.

For that reason, all but about a half dozen states have formed statewide committees to help ensure a full count of their populations. Some states are putting millions of dollars in state funds into their efforts. In Nebraska, Ricketts declined to form a state count committee and vetoed a bill from the Legislature that would have created one.

Ricketts defended his decision Tuesday. He noted that Omaha and a number of other localities have formed their own local “complete count committees.” He said forming a state committee would have been duplicative of local efforts and a waste of resources.

“It really needs to happen at the local level,” he said.

But Ricketts said he is open to other state involvement in promoting the census. There are no specific plans yet, he said, but he mentioned the possibility of promoting the census during regular state contacts with food stamp recipients, or possibly having the Nebraska Department of Labor help the Census Bureau find the workers it needs.

“We’re starting to have those discussions right now,” he said.

In the absence of an official state complete count committee, UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research is sponsoring a 2020 Census summit Dec. 13. The plan is to bring together regional census staff members, local complete count committees and other statewide groups and others interested in coming up with a coordinated action plan.

Finding workers represents one of the most pressing concerns right now. Typical office and field jobs in Nebraska will pay from $13.50 to $17.50 an hour, and there are higher-paying management positions available, too. Those interested are encouraged to apply online at 2020census.gov/jobs.

Johnson said finding enough workers is particularly a concern given the low unemployment rates seen in Nebraska and across the country. He said that’s why the Census Bureau is also targeting retirees, students and homemakers as potential workers.

Johnny Rodgers, the former Cornhusker football standout is among the 2020 Census workers. He’s taking a job as a partnership specialist to perform community outreach.

“There are a lot of opportunities for employment, and it’s really important,” he said. “It’s just a really big deal.”

Photos: National landmarks of Nebraska

More power needed: OPPD plans to build Nebraska's largest solar farm, plus natural gas plants

Omaha’s electric utility plans to build Nebraska’s largest solar power farm as part of a broader green power initiative.

The Omaha Public Power District board will vote as early as Nov. 14 to seek bids to produce 400 to 600 megawatts of solar power, officials said Tuesday.

That would be roughly double the size of the state’s largest solar installation announced to date, a 230-megawatt, $230 million project proposed east of Lincoln by Ranger Power.

OPPD is still deciding whether it’s more cost-effective to own and operate the farm, or to partner with a private company to operate it.

Board Chairwoman Anne McGuire asked OPPD president and CEO Tim Burke about the project’s costs during an OPPD committee meeting Tuesday.

Burke declined to discuss costs until bids come back but said OPPD expected no general rate increase from the solar farm or related projects.

The publicly owned utility will ask bidders to propose locations in eastern Nebraska for the solar farm, Burke said. The site or sites would need access to OPPD’s transmission lines.

Burke said the OPPD installation, if built, would be the largest solar power project in this part of the Midwest.

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The new investments are needed to improve the reliability of OPPD’s power grid and to ensure that the system can withstand disruptions, including from flooding, ice storms and tornadoes, said Dan Lenihan, OPPD’s director of planning and strategy.

The utility also needs additional capacity as eastern Nebraska continues to grow and large new industrial and commercial customers use more power. Several new data centers have moved to Sarpy County, including Google and Facebook.

Board member Janece Mollhoff asked about the impact on OPPD customers of adding so many data centers and high-energy users.

Burke said the cost of providing power to those users is covered by the rates the utility charges them.

Other OPPD residential and business customers are not subsidizing that growth with higher bills, he said.

To back up the solar panels when the sun doesn’t shine, OPPD also will seek bids to build new natural gas plants to provide up to a combined 600 megawatts of power.

Environmental activists, including John Crabtree of the Sierra Club and Eliot Bostar of Nebraska Conservation Voters, expressed mixed feelings about the solar proposal because of the new natural gas plants.

Crabtree said OPPD had come a long way since 2010, when its largest source of low emissions energy was the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, which has since closed.

The utility already has signed contracts to buy 1,000 megawatts of wind energy.

Bostar said he doesn’t know that OPPD had many viable options, besides natural gas, to back up the solar panels.

Currently, it’s difficult for utilities to store adequate power from wind and solar sources, which are subject to the whims of Mother Nature, to ensure stable power flows. Battery technology for that purpose is improving but not yet cost-effective.

Burke said OPPD’s new solar farm would include space to add massive batteries if the technology improves.

The solar farm is part of a wider plan discussed Tuesday by OPPD to give customers cleaner power from sources other than coal.

OPPD also discussed setting a goal of a “net-zero” carbon future by 2050.

The utility, as part of its plans for future power generation, will stop burning coal at OPPD’s North Omaha Station on John J. Pershing Drive. It will shut down three older, less efficient turbines at the plant and shift two of the plant’s more modern turbines from coal to gas.

Doing so could cut carbon emissions at the power plant by up to 80%, based on OPPD estimates.

But OPPD’s north Omaha plant, which employs 136 people, may need fewer workers after the transition. Mary Fisher, OPPD’s vice president of energy production, said she has spoken to plant employees about the job uncertainty surrounding the shift to renewable energy.

Fisher said she has told them that OPPD will work with any employees who might lose jobs to find other opportunities, in and outside of OPPD. It’s too soon to tell how many jobs could be impacted, she said.

Board member Craig Moody said OPPD has to take care of its employees in an energy industry that is changing at “light speed.”

Construction on the new solar farm and natural gas plants is expected to begin in 2020. The solar farm could be completed in 2022 or 2023. The natural gas plants could be built by 2023 or 2024.

OPPD provides power to all or parts of 13 counties in eastern Nebraska.

The utility is seeking public comments via its website on the solar proposal, as well as its new goal for carbon emissions, through Nov. 8.

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