Some familiar faces in Bellevue government took the microphone at Tuesday’s City Council meeting to oppose the city’s proposals that would define punishments for elected officials who engage in misconduct.
Two former council members, the current president of the Bellevue school board and a few private citizens opposed the measures outright or expressed concerns about specific components. City officials, meanwhile, used the hearing to defend the legal and practical basis for the proposals.
The measures, as written Tuesday, define misconduct and outline a series of progressive punishments that could result in someone’s removal from office. The proposals also would codify similar punishments for elected officials who share information from closed meetings of the council.
Under the proposals, if a council member were accused of misconduct and the city sought to remove the member from office, a unanimous vote by the remaining five council members would be required for removal.
During a public hearing that lasted more than an hour, many of those who opposed the measures expressed discomfort with that idea.
Former City Councilman Chuck Fredrick summed up the sentiment expressed by many of the speakers: “The people vote you in; the people should vote you out.”
Jim Moudry, also a former Bellevue councilman, took issue with the city being able to decide what behaviors constitute misconduct. Some actions, like a council member benefiting financially from a vote, should clearly be prohibited, Moudry said. Other parts of the ordinance, like how the city defines inflammatory comments, were too ambiguous, he said.
“I am not sure that all of those things listed really rise to the level of being misconduct by an elected official,” Moudry said.
Tom Richards, a former Sarpy County Board member, expressed "qualified support" of the measure. He was the only member of the public to speak positively at the meeting. He said council members who disclose information from closed sessions aren’t serving the public interest.
The city has argued that it has no recourse if a council member sexually harasses a city employee or makes inappropriate comments to citizens. Councilwoman Kathy Welch, who indicated her support for the measures, said she has been subjected to those behaviors firsthand.
“I have been a victim of sexual-harassing language in the past, and I can tell you if it was an employee of the City of Bellevue, another government agency or private enterprise, investigation and discipline would have been warranted,” Welch said of a sitting councilman. “Under our current ordinances, there is no accountability and/or no action that can be taken against the perpetrator.”
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Bree Robbins, Bellevue’s city attorney, began the hearing by defending the legality of what the city is pursuing. She pointed to state statutes that allow cities of Bellevue’s size to pass ordinances to remove elected officials from office, as Fremont and Grand Island have done.
Some opponents expressed concerns that implementing punishments for council members who share information from closed sessions could deter them from whistleblowing in the event of wrongdoing. Robbins said those concerns are misplaced: There are laws that would protect that act, she said, noting that the city is attempting to prevent council members from leaking real estate deals and other information legally protected by Nebraska’s open meetings law.
“There’s nothing in here that would punish anybody for whistleblowing on … wrongdoing,” Mayor Rusty Hike told The World-Herald last week. “There’s certainly no intent of that.”
Sarah Centineo, an attorney who is the president of the Bellevue school board, criticized the city’s proposed process for how complaints against elected officials would be vetted. The measure would sets up a trial-like process that would begin with Jim Ristow, the city administrator, examining complaints and determining whether they warrant more action.
Then the accused official would go before the council, with the city attorney acting as prosecutor. Centineo said that would be “fundamentally unfair” to the council member in question because another council member may have been the person who brought the complaint.
Robbins said the city will consider changing the language of portions of the proposals now that the public has weighed in. Broadly, she said the city will consider changes that would put more steps of the process in the public view and reconsider how misconduct is defined.
The council voted to hold another public hearing on the proposals Nov. 19. A final vote is scheduled for Dec. 3.