A two-months-long stalemate between three Bellevue City Council members and the city's mayor has stalled attempts to fill a vacant council seat, and residents are fed up.
“You can either speak to a wall or speak to the council, it's going to have the same effect,” Bellevue Bridge Commission Chairman Don Fenster told the council at its most recent meeting.
The dispute has become a topic of discussion in coffee shops and book clubs in Bellevue, where residents say they are embarrassed by the council's reputation for clashing with the mayor.
The crux of the problem is Mayor Rita Sanders' appointment of businessman Mike Hall to the council seat vacated by Scott Houghtaling.
Council President Don Preister, along with council members Carol Blood and Steve Knutson, blocked the appointment. They said another Olde Towne businessman, Dave Compton, is more qualified.
Now the council is poised to ask Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale to intervene and issue a formal ruling, but there's no guarantee that will lead to a resolution. If anything, Gale would clarify the process on how to proceed.
Gale said he has never had to issue a formal ruling on such a dispute between a mayor and city council.
“If this can't be resolved,” he said, “then I fear for Bellevue to be able to function as a city.”
The three council members say Compton has been more active in city government and would be able to “hit the ground running.” They also say they don't know Hall well enough to approve his appointment.
They proposed an alternative: a special election to fill the spot.
Sanders and the other two council members, Kathy Saniuk and Paul Cook, nixed that idea, citing the cost of up to $10,000.
Saniuk and others in the community have said they oppose a special election on principle. She said the mayor was within her power to make the appointment, and the other council members should respect that.
Sanders is standing by her nomination and says Hall continues to be the best candidate.
“The intention was to follow policy and procedures and bring the best candidate forward, and I feel that's exactly what I've done,” Sanders said.
The City Council has spent several meetings voting down both proposals, first the special election, then Hall's appointment.
Meanwhile, Ward 1 residents have been coming to every meeting and pleading with the council to get the matter resolved. It has made for some tense moments at council meetings, particularly between Blood and Sanders.
Gale said someone from Ward 1 could sue and get a judge to force the city toward a solution, but that would not be ideal.
“Why should a judge have to run the City of Bellevue when you have politicians there who should be following the fine art of compromise?” he asked.
In 2006, Bellevue voters reduced the size of the council from 10 members to six. The leaders of a petition drive proposed the measure in part to curtail this type of bickering.
Terry Calek, who served as a spokeswoman for the group that pushed for the council's reduction, said she is disappointed with the results.
“Issues like this seem to perpetuate this feeling that there is not a lot of internal cooperation in working for the people,” she said, as opposed to “let's see who can win the biggest standoff.”
Calek said she thinks other cities in the area are watching, and it discourages them from working with Bellevue.
“I'd like to see us as a leader in the metro area,” she said.
Advice from City Attorney Pat Sullivan has created a tangent discussion. He said Sanders can appoint Hall as many times as she likes. But Preister and Blood believe that she must nominate someone else.
So far, Gale has declined to weigh in, saying he doesn't take the place of a city attorney.
Tonight the council is scheduled to vote to formally ask Gale to make a decision.
Gale hasn't received the request, but he said Sullivan's interpretation was well-researched. “It challenges the imagination to think they can't resolve this.”
Council members, the mayor and Sullivan insist that the people of Ward 1 aren't missing out on representation. Other council members are fielding requests for service, they said. And Blood, as the at-large council member, represents those people as she does the rest of the city's residents.
“This is not a crisis of any sorts,” Sullivan said. “Police are still patrolling the streets, parks are still getting mowed and building permits are still getting issued.”
But there are big decisions coming for the city, and no one on the council currently represents Ward 1 exclusively. The ward includes Olde Towne and the Haworth Park area, both of which will be seeing big changes as the police station moves from the area and the park reopens after the 2011 flood.
Also coming up for council discussion is the city budget, which will probably include some steep cuts.
People on both sides of the dispute have made overtures to resolve the stalemate, but they say they aren't much closer to an agreement. Preister and Sanders even met in person.
“We talked but nothing was resolved, so at this point we really haven't moved forward,” Preister said. “No progress.”
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