Public officials on several local elected bodies need to stop and consider how some of their recent actions disrespect voters and erode public trust. Local government in the Omaha area is amassing a string of actions that fail to provide for adequate public comment before a significant decision is made.
The most recent example came last week, when the majority on the Omaha City Council, with no notification beforehand to the public, quickly moved to reverse long-established plans to sunset the city’s tobacco tax.
Omaha leaders approved the tax in 2012 not for the city’s general use in perpetuity but to support a specific, limited project: construction of the new cancer center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. In the face of controversy over creation of the tax, the city included a sunset clause so the tax would discontinue at the end of 2022.
The city’s failure last week to provide proper notice was made clear at the council meeting when City Treasurer Donna Waller said her office would need time to figure out the fiscal ramifications of ending the tax sunset. The council majority’s action to reverse course on the tax issue was so precipitous, in other words, that city staff themselves were taken off guard.
Waller said later that any funds above the $35 million to be paid over 10 years to the cancer center would go to the city’s general fund.
The City Council’s decision came in the wake of similarly troubling actions by other local elected bodies.
The Douglas County Board, for example, placed a major long-range salary hike on its Sept. 10 agenda, held a public hearing that day and then voted 5-2 to approve it. Thanks to hefty increases the board has approved for coming years, the salary for this part-time elected position is now set to jump from the current $51,789 to $61,310 by 2024. As recently as 2016, the salary was $37,304. The Sept. 10 action sidestepped the normal procedure that allows more time for public comment.
In Bellevue, the City Council in August voted 4-2 to approve automatic yearly salary increases for the council without going through the normal process to allow public comment. The action, for a 2% annual raise for the council and mayor starting in December 2021, was made without any prior notice to the public, as any significant policy proposal should receive. Through its action, the council members sidestepped the appropriate three-meeting process by which a proposal is introduced, a public hearing held and then a vote is taken.
Nebraskans can disagree legitimately on tax policy or salary decisions, but elected bodies mustn’t rule by decree. They have an obligation to provide ample opportunity for the public to weigh in on major issues, to ensure government accountability.
When elected officials approach these concerns responsibly, they build public trust. When they disregard these duties, they erode that trust. That is the current danger they’re needlessly creating through their recent actions.