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Omaha City Council Ordinance Alters the Health Director’s Authority

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Omaha City Council voted to approve the ordinance to limit the authority of the city’s health director to issue public health mandates. (Tyeisha Kosmicki – NSN News)

April 6, 2022
(Tyeisha Kosmicki – NSN News)

In a 5-2 vote the Omaha City Council passed the ordinance which purportedly would streamline the process for the city’s health director to implement directed health measures under the threat of an epidemic.

The process will now require the health director to submit a request for a public health mandate to the mayor. The options available to the mayor are approving, rejecting, or taking no action on the request. After being presented to the mayor, the DHM request will appear on the city council agenda for the next scheduled or specially set meeting. The council will affirm or rescind the order by a majority vote. The mayor retains no veto power.

City Council will have the final say in whether a proposed DHM will be implemented.

Councilman Vinny Palermo explained why he felt it was necessary to introduce the ordinance. Speaking directly to Omaha and Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse, Palermo said, “It’s [the ordinance] to help the process out where you can, as the expert that we trust in, that I believe in, make the decision. But taking the pressure off you, with a quick turnaround depending on what the situation is, to go through the Mayor’s office and then to the City Council as well.”

As stated in the ordinance, which most recently was amended on April 1st, “Any action taken by the City Council pursuant to this section, being administrative and not of legislative character, shall be in force and take effect immediately upon passage. This action of the City Council shall be final and binding upon the City.”

The ordinance explicitly outlines the requirement that the health director, upon the determination that the city is under the threat or affliction of an epidemic of contagious or infectious disease, must consult with experts and other relevant health care authorities depending upon severity and type of epidemic.

Although it was assumed that a health director would consult with experts, that action was not previously required.

Huse thanked the council for their willingness to discuss balancing the needs of public health with accountability.

“My biggest concerns which I voiced last week are to ensure we still have the ability to act in our day-to-day roles,” Huse said.

Councilwoman Juanita Johnson and Council President Pete Festersen did not support the passage of this ordinance.

“In a day and age when it seems every word is analyzed and there’s lawsuits about almost everything – including these topics – I do remain concerned that, in my opinion, we still haven’t addressed some important issues in terms of the wording,” Festersen said.

Festersen listed his concerns about the wording, including: the ordinance does not expressly state that councilmembers are not allowed to make amendments, it does not clarify whether the DHMs will only apply to citywide issues, and there is no differentiation between the terminology of epidemic and pandemic. While instructions on what actions the health director must take in the event of an epidemic appear in the ordinance, the word “pandemic” does not appear in the ordinance.

The ordinance was introduced by District 3 Councilman Vinny Palermo with the support of Mayor Jean Stothert in March. -30-

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