The power to remove elected officials in Bellevue will remain in the hands of the voting public.
The Bellevue City Council on Tuesday approved ordinances that define punishments for elected officials — specifically the mayor or members of the City Council — who engage in misconduct or disclose information from closed sessions.
But an amendment by one councilman defanged one of the ordinances, stripping it of language that would have allowed the City Council to remove an official from office if his or her conduct was “severe or egregious.” Instead, punishments will be limited to actions such as reprimands or the loss of one’s seat on a committee or task force.
It was that option — removal from office — that had drawn the most opposition in public hearings.
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Councilman Thomas Burns’ amendment to erase the removal-from-office component passed on a 4-2 vote. Council members Pat Shannon, Bob Stinson and Kathy Welch joined Burns in voting for it, while Council President Paul Cook and Councilman Don Preister voted against.
The amended ordinance then passed on a 5-1 vote with Shannon voting no.
In an interview after the meeting, Burns said he believes voters should decide if someone’s behavior warrants removal from office.
“I just don’t believe in taking away the decision from the voters,” he said.
The city sought to implement punishments for misconduct because leaders have said that one councilman has made sexual and other inappropriate comments to fellow council members, city staff and constituents. Until Tuesday’s vote, however, those leaders said there was no recourse for addressing the behavior.
No one has publicly identified which council member made those comments. Last week, Shannon said he will lead a recall effort against Welch, accusing her of making inappropriate comments, among other alleged misdeeds.
But on Tuesday, Cook — who previously outlined some of the inappropriate comments that have been made — defended Welch, saying she wasn’t the person who made the remarks.
Welch, too, used Tuesday’s meeting to address Shannon’s recall effort against her. In brief remarks during the meeting, Welch said Shannon’s recall announcement was an attempt to “intimidate” and “harass” her into voting against the ordinances that passed Tuesday.
A separate ordinance specifically addressed punishments for those who leak information discussed in closed sessions. That measure passed the council 4-2, with Shannon and Stinson voting no. Those punishments, too, will be limited to sanctions or reprimands.
Mayor Rusty Hike and other city leaders have said information from closed sessions, like real estate deals still under negotiation, has been leaked.
That measure had come under fire by groups like Media of Nebraska and ACLU Nebraska, both of which issued statements expressing concern about whether the possibility of being punished for leaking could deter members from exposing potential wrongdoing in closed sessions.
In defending that ordinance, City Attorney Bree Robbins has pointed to laws that protect whistleblowers.
Hike, who supported earlier versions of the ordinances that included the option to remove someone from office, said he was surprised by Burns’ amendment but pleased by the feedback the city received.
“With all the input, we came to the best decision,” Hike said.
Whether the ordinances passed Tuesday will fix Bellevue’s problems with misconduct and leaking, Hike said, will be known in time.
Before the votes on the ordinances, Bellevue resident Todd Santoro said he has been disappointed by how the city has navigated the process of introducing and defending the measures, denouncing what he called “finger-pointing.”
“I’m kind of embarrassed,” Santoro said. “It’s disappointing what you guys have done.”