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.