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It's an abuse of power, critics say. But Bellevue says no — plan targets bad behavior

The City of Bellevue would transition from a democracy to a “dictatorship” if the City Council approves ordinances that establish consequences for misconduct and leaking, a councilman wrote in a letter this week.

Councilman Pat Shannon’s criticism was directed at proposals that could result in punishment as severe as an elected official’s removal from office if that person violates the proposed ordinances.

The proposals address two concepts: misconduct, which covers a wide range of decorum including sexually inappropriate or derogatory comments; and sharing information from closed sessions that aren’t open to the public.

The punishments for engaging in misconduct or leaking, as outlined by the proposals, range from a written reprimand to someone’s removal from office by a vote of the council.

It’s primarily the latter punishment that has drawn pushback from some citizens and community groups.

Opponents of the measures say only voters should have the power to remove someone from his or her elected office. They also say they’re concerned that punishing officials for sharing private city information could deter them from highlighting abuses of power.

City leaders say those fears are misplaced, arguing that the ordinances are being pursued to give the city recourse if an elected official acts or speaks in an inappropriate manner.

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The public will have the chance to comment on the matter during a hearing at Bellevue’s next City Council meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday at 1500 Wall St.

“If they grab the power to override elections and remove duly elected city council members, they will never give up that power,” Shannon wrote in his letter.

Shannon’s letter was written in response to another letter sent to the city by Media of Nebraska, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting watchdog journalism. The group also opposes the proposals.

“It is our opinion that adding language that provides harsh penalties, including removal from office, for violating these arbitrary rules of conduct does not serve the interests of the citizens of Bellevue,” Media of Nebraska’s letter stated. “These proposals would have a chilling effect on the release of information to which the citizens are entitled.”

The World-Herald was one of the signatories of the media group’s letter.

In a joint interview this week, Bellevue Mayor Rusty Hike and Jim Ristow, the city administrator, said they have no interest in stifling council members’ ability to express themselves or engaging in government overreach.

The city does not intend to pursue someone’s removal from office unless the circumstances are extreme, Ristow said. He said he believes having established consequences for misconduct will be enough motivation for council members to act appropriately.

Hike and Ristow both said they’ve witnessed or heard of multiple times when a council member has made inappropriate comments, describing instances in which a council member has threatened physical harm or made sexual innuendos to women.

Ristow described a luncheon in which a councilman made an inappropriate comment to a woman. Ristow said he told the man that the comment was inappropriate, but other than a verbal reprimand, Ristow said the city has been unable to do much else.

The proposed rules, Ristow and Hike said, give the city an avenue to address such behavior.

“I don’t doubt that if the public knew some of the things being said — they’d be up in arms, and there would be a recall,” Hike said.

The men declined to name the council member or offer more detail.

Since the proposals first went before the council in mid-October, the city has tweaked the language of how someone would be removed from office. The first draft of the ordinance required a three-fourths vote of the council to remove a member; the updated language would require a unanimous vote from the council, excluding the person under review.

Bellevue has modeled its misconduct language after similar codes in Fremont and Grand Island, both of which have pathways to remove elected officials from office.

As for leaking, Ristow and Hike said the ordinance was crafted to prevent council members from talking about information that is meant to be protected by closed sessions, such as city real estate deals and personnel matters.

If something inappropriate happens in a closed session, or if the city discusses something that should have been hashed out in the public eye, council members can still tell the public about it without reprimand, they said.

“There’s nothing in here that would punish anybody for whistleblowing on … wrongdoing,” Hike said. “There’s certainly no intent of that.”

“If we go out of those bounds, go to the rooftop and yell at the top of your lungs — we’re OK with that,” Ristow said.

John Bender, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor and First Amendment scholar, said Bellevue likely will continue to face “public perception problems” if it pursues the ability to remove democratically elected members of its City Council.

Bender said he believes the established methods of removing an elected official from office — a recall or a future election — are the most appropriate means of doing so. He said giving a city administration that power invites the possibility of abuse.

“I can easily imagine a situation where some members of the City Council or other board would want to eliminate a member who might be a gadfly …(someone who) simply has viewpoints that coincide with theirs,” Bender said.

Shannon agrees.

“The citizens lose their representation, their vote and any pretense of oversight of the city,” Shannon wrote in his letter. “This is not the American way of governance.”

OWH front pages through the years​

Stop using all inclined sleepers, warns federal safety agency as death toll hits 73

Consumers should stop using all inclined sleepers - even models that have not been recalled - because of the risk of accidental suffocation, federal safety regulators said Friday.

The warning from the Consumer Product Safety Commission comes after months of controversy over the popular infant-sleeping devices, which began in April with the recall of millions of Fisher-Price's Rock 'n Plays because of safety concerns and culminated in the release of a study two weeks ago that found the product's design inherently dangerous.

The CPSC's new warning applies to any sleeping device that allows babies to sleep at an angle greater than 10 degrees. Most inclined sleepers stood at about 30 degrees.

In addition to the Rock 'n Play, inclined sleepers made by Kids II and Dorel Juvenile Group also have been recalled in recent months. They were pulled from the market and the companies are offering consumers some compensation.

But the new CPSC warning is not a recall. It is the agency's response to a growing body of research about the safety of inclined sleepers and a surge in the number of deaths associated with the products. The agency said there were fewer than 40 deaths tied to the products in April. Now, that number has shot to 73 infant deaths.

The CPSC is also pushing for new federal rules that would essentially outlaw inclined sleepers by limiting the incline to 10 degrees. But the rulemaking process is expected to take at least several months. In the interim, the agency is advising parents to avoid the products.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has said inclined sleepers are unsafe for several years. The group recommends that babies sleep on a flat surface in a crib or bassinet. Prolonged sleep in bouncers or infant car seats is also not recommended.

The CPSC had been worried about deaths in inclined sleepers for at least a year before the Rock 'n Play recall earlier this year. But agency staff struggled to explain why babies were dying in the product. A Washington Post investigation detailed how Fisher-Price invented the class of products without medical safety testing or input from a pediatrician.

Last month, a new study by University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences researchers found that babies are especially susceptible to suffocation in an inclined sleeper because the products makes it easier for babies to roll into an unsafe facedown position. The study examined how 10 infants moved in the devices and monitored their blood-oxygen levels.

Some roads in Nebraska Sand Hills are still underwater months after flood

LINCOLN — Months after historic spring flooding, some roads and highways in Nebraska’s Sand Hills are still underwater, causing problems for mail delivery, school buses and ranchers, and concerns about accidents on iced roadways.

Al Davis

Former State Sen. Al Davis said at least two vehicles have skidded off a water-covered stretch of Nebraska Highway 61 near his ranch north of Hyannis. Local school officials check daily to make sure that school buses can plow through the water, which is knee-deep and deeper.

“If kids in Omaha had to drive through this, it would be a tremendous outrage,” said Travis Hawk, principal of the Hyannis Area Schools.

Some areas of the Sand Hills, in north-central Nebraska, have seen rainfall totals 8 to 12 inches above normal, forcing groundwater levels to rise and adjacent lakes and marshes to overrun roads, highways and corrals.

The state had to raise the elevation of U.S. Highway 83 south of Valentine with asphalt millings to overcome the water, and additional drainage was dug along Nebraska Highway 97 north of Mullen to clear that roadway.

The high water has forced postal vehicles to detour across open pastures or drop off mail at alternative locations on higher ground.

Some rural residents are using horses or four-wheelers to ford flooded roads to pick up mail, according to Hyannis Postmaster Karel Hebbert, and one mail deliverer switched to a Hummer in hopes that its higher clearance could beat the flooded roads.

“There are water holes where nobody has seen water holes before,” said Hebbert, whose ranch house northwest of Hyannis took on water.

Lloyd Smith, the highway superintendent for Cherry County, said he’s never seen water levels this high, and sustained this long, in 46 years.

Up to 40 county roads at one time were blocked by flooding in his county, he said, and crews are still working to fix roads.

“Our water tables are rising, and we’re at maximum capacity,” he said. “There’s nowhere for the water to go.”

The area’s current state senator, Tom Brewer of Gordon, said his office has been working with state and local road officials since spring to get highways and roads passable.

Tom Brewer

Brewer said the water has flooded corrals, forcing ranchers to herd cattle cross-country to new, temporary loading pens. The high water has also deeply reduced hay harvests in the area — hay that ranchers rely on to feed cattle through the winter.

“With cattle prices not being great, property taxes being high, and not enough hay, it’s kind of the perfect storm,” Brewer said.

On Highway 61 north of Hyannis, there doesn’t appear to be a quick solution, according to Jeni Campana, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Transportation.

There’s no place to pump out or drain the water over the highway there, she said, and no way to raise the elevation of the road.

That’s not comforting news for Hyannis officials, who say that while locals know where to slow down, motorists from outside the area may not.

Hawk, the local principal, said he’s particularly concerned that now that the water across the highway is icing up, the area will become even more dangerous, especially if the water turns into hard-to-see black ice.

“Even if you know black ice is there, if you’re in a bus, you can get out of control, even if you’re going slow,” he said.

Davis, the former senator, suggested that more warning signs, and maybe a stop sign, is needed where water covers the highway north of Hyannis.

But Campana said stopping traffic can create more hazards on highways where stoppages are not anticipated.

She said department officials continue to monitor the highway daily and keep in touch with the local school bus driver.

Campana said the department is also helping Sand Hills counties apply for federal disaster aid for their road repair costs.

Photos: Nebraska flooding viewed from above


States ponder ways to help sleep-deprived
California mandates later school start times as part of a movement to legislate more rest for better health

Teenagers don't get enough sleep, and California's effort to fix the problem may serve as a wake-up call to other states' lawmakers.

A law recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that mandates later start times for most students — no earlier than 8 a.m. in middle school and 8:30 a.m. in high school — is the first statewide response in the United States to overwhelming evidence that chronic lack of sleep impairs teens.

But it is hardly the only attempt to address the issue.

Individual cities, regions and school districts across the U.S. have tried for years to afford their students the sleep benefits of later school starts.

Their efforts are just one aspect of a broader societal phenomenon so harmful that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared it a public health epidemic five years ago. Simply put, a staggering number of Americans — or, better said, a number of staggering Americans — don't get enough sleep.

There is no simple way to alter that reality, a reminder of which we'll get this Sunday as daylight saving time ends, bringing with it the usual spate of sleep-related complications.


Don't forget to set your clocks back one hour on Sunday at 2 a.m.

Last November, nearly 60% of California voters backed a ballot proposition to end twice-a-year clock changes, in part because of the havoc they wreak on sleep. State legislators followed with a bill to put California on permanent daylight saving time. The bill is on hold.

Only two states — Arizona and Hawaii — do not move their clocks every spring and autumn. Both abandoned the system in the late 1960s, noting that their residents receive plenty of sunlight yearround.

Other states, includingMinnesota, Florida and several more, have considered legislation to remain on daylight saving time year-round. Oregon already passed a law to do so. But because legislators there wanted all the clocks on the West Coast showing the same time, their law is on hold untilWashington and California do the same.

And to make the problem even more complicated, any state that jettisons biannual clock changing still needs approval fromCongress.

The specifics of California's new school law reflect the complexity of any kind of change to the sleep patterns of Americans. The bill exempts some of the state's rural districts, makes allowances for optional "zero period" early classes, and is being phased in over three years.

Critics say local communities and school boards should be able to decide their own start times. And they argue that the law will disproportionately affect lower-income families, who cannot alter their morning work schedules to accommodate later rides to school — though some lucky parents may be able to get more sleep.

The momentum toward later starting times for students, who researchers say need close to nine hours of sleep a night, has been gathering for some time. And research in places that made the change has shown it is beneficial to students.

Many schools in the Minneapolis area moved back high school start times 20 years ago and found that students were generally more alert, less stressed and less likely to fall asleep in class.

In Kentucky's Jessamine County, a 2002 switch from 7:30 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. for high school students had several immediate effects, among them increases in attendance and standardized test scores. Seattle in 2016 moved to an 8:45 a.m. start, nearly an hour later than the previous one; it has resulted in students getting more than a half-hour of extra sleep, according to research. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, schools also moved to later start times the same year.

And there is some momentum at statewide levels, too. Days after Newsom signed the law, a legislator in Ohio introduced a bill that no school start before 8:30 a.m. — though its author was less concerned with sleep than with early morning safety problems. Lawmakers in Indiana, South Carolina and New Jersey are also among those studying later start times.

The movement may ultimately make economic sense: Moving the first bell to 8:30 a.m. across America's middle and high schools could add $9.3 billion to the economy in the next year and $83 billion over a decade — all because of improved sleep, health and mental acuity, according to a study by the Rand Corp., the Santa Monica, California-based think tank.

Well-established scientific research draws a direct line between less sleep and health — not just for developing adolescents, but for adults, too.

"The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life," University of California-Berkeley neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker wrote in his bestselling book, "Why We Sleep."

Despite this knowledge, however, "the trend is going the other way," said Aric Prather, associate professor of psychiatry at UC-San Francisco, who studies and works with patients on sleep-related problems.

The number of Americans who say they don't get even the minimum recommended seven hours of sleep per night has increased significantly since 2013, and nearly one-third of Americans now say they sleep six hours or less.

Chronic sleep disruption has been linked to a weakened immune system, low sex drive, loss of memory, increased likelihood of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and impaired thinking, as well as higher risks of accidents, obesity, loneliness and low-grade depression.

Put it together, and those who habitually get too little sleep are going to wind up with shorter, unhappier lives.

It's enough to keep you up at night.