Omaha police, fire chiefs' civil service protections may wind up on the line -
Published Friday, September 20, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 3:02 am
Omaha police, fire chiefs' civil service protections may wind up on the line

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is considering a proposal to remove civil service protections for the police and fire chiefs as the city reviews its charter for the first time in a decade.

The City Council voted this week to create a charter study convention: a group of 25 people who will think about, talk about and vote on issues that should be added to or altered in the document that works as the city's constitution. The council and Stothert will name the members.

Over eight weeks, the group will settle on a list of recommendations that will be forwarded to the City Council. Any ideas that pass that step will end up on the ballot for a popular vote, likely next year.

A police auditor and voting rights for people outside the city limits could be among hot topics.

The charter group also is likely to be asked to consider giving the Omaha mayor the authority to fire police and fire chiefs.

Stothert, in a statement Thursday, said she wants to consider eliminating the civil service protection for Omaha's police and fire chiefs. However, Stothert said she had not decided whether to make that recommendation to the charter review committee.

“I do think the fire and police chief, as well as the other department directors, should be evaluated on their performance,” she said. “I think taxpayers expect that. Every director should be treated the same.”

Currently the fire and police chiefs can be dismissed only for cause, such as criminal behavior, insubordination or incompetence.

Retiring Fire Chief Mike ­McDonnell has held that protection, even though Stothert wanted a new chief. Stothert had to get McDonnell to sign a special retirement deal to get him to leave.

Councilman Franklin Thompson said he is debating changing that civil service protection or making the positions elected, as the sheriff's position is.

“There needs to be a change. ... I'd prefer having them be elected ... but both should be considered,” Thompson said.

Council President Pete Festersen said the chiefs' civil service protection has come up in past charter reviews.

“It's worth reviewing,” he said. “There are pros and cons. We would look toward the commission to look at it and make recommendations to us.”

Council members will nominate 14 of the group's members, with two coming from each council district. Stothert will pick nine people, and the remaining two will be selected by the council's law committee.

The group will divide into five committees, each focusing on a different part of the city's charter, such as finance, administration or human resources.

Starting Oct. 7, the committees will begin meeting regularly, wrapping up their work eight weeks later, in early December.

“It's a very important process we conduct every 10 years to make sure the city charter responds to the will of the people,” Fester­sen said.

Council members said they already have been hearing from residents interested in changes to the city's charter.

Some topics are likely to be repeats from past charter conventions. In 1993 and 2003, members of the convention backed plans to hold city elections at the same time as other state and federal elections. That change was not adopted.

Thompson said he's heard of interest in a police auditor — possibly one elected by voters rather than appointed by city officials. He said people who live in the three-mile zoning area outside the city remain interested in voting rights.

“Quite a few citizens are wanting to give input,” Thompson said at a council meeting. “More than the last time we did it.”

Stothert said she has interest in bringing several topics to the convention but wants to wait to discuss them until after she has made her appointments. She said she will decide on a civil service protection proposal after the committee is named.

“I want to make sure that I get a real diverse group,” she said. “I want to combine people that understand law, business, labor — citizens that are out in the community and have a real concern with our city charter.”

Officials said the review process will include one public meeting that will provide time for comments. People also can send their suggestions to the City Clerk's Office and the Mayor's Office.

Contact the writer: Erin Golden    |   402-444-1543    |  

Erin covers the Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office.

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