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Divided Nebraska City Council Votes to Hold Meetings Online

Against its lawyer's advice, the city narrowly agreed to meet virtually during the next two weeks rather than in person as state and local health officials brace for escalating transmission of coronavirus in Nebraska.

by Riley Johnson, Lincoln Journal Star / April 14, 2020
Shutterstock/mrmohock

(TNS) — A divided Lincoln, Neb., City Council, against its lawyer's advice, narrowly agreed to meet virtually during the next two weeks rather than in person as state and local health officials brace for escalating transmission of the coronavirus in Nebraska.

The four-member majority agreed to follow other local governments under an executive order issued by Gov. Pete Ricketts that waives in-person meeting requirements under state open-meetings laws provided public notice of the meeting is given and access to the meeting remains.

Councilwoman Sändra Washington proposed the meeting changes because she believes the technology exists to allow transparency and retain public involvement in the meetings.

"I believe the essential work of governing continues whether we are working through an emergency or not," she said in proposing the virtual meetings. "And I think it's good sense that we allow ourselves the flexibility to meet at a responsible and safe distance in order to provide ourselves and staff the same precautions we are asking of others."

At a Monday afternoon meeting before the main council meeting, an assistant city attorney used a forehead thermometer to screen each of the council members, several of whom wore masks during portions of the meeting.

"We have an obligation not only to conduct city business but to keep every single person that we come into contact with safe also," Councilman James Michael Bowers said, speaking through a blue surgical mask.

He pointed to the Lancaster County commissioners, who held their first County Board meeting via videoconference last week and will hold their second virtual meeting Tuesday.

The Omaha City Council held its last meeting March 17 and doesn't plan to meet again until April 21. The Nebraska Legislature has suspended its session and has met only for emergency votes.

Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick last week asked council members wary of meeting in person during the pandemic to favor suspending meetings and meeting only on an emergency basis in person to vote on measures vital to continued city operations.

His office concluded that the governor didn't have authority to waive state law requirements governing meetings of city governments such as Lincoln's.

Councilman Richard Meginnis said he felt the council can't continue to meet in person, but meeting virtually jeopardizes the projects the council may approve during such meetings.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson's office backed the governor's executive order, and Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon said the governor's broad emergency powers to suspend regulations or rules concerning public business would extend to state open-meetings laws that dictate how the business of forming public policy proceeds.

Washington, Bowers, Councilwoman Tammy Ward and Council Chair Jane Raybould voted in the majority, while Meginnis and Councilmen Bennie Shobe and Roy Christensen opposed the change.

Following the divided vote, the council unanimously agreed to meet in person May 4.

©2020 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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