The City of Bellevue would transition from a democracy to a “dictatorship” if the City Council approves ordinances that establish consequences for misconduct and leaking, a councilman wrote in a letter this week.
Councilman Pat Shannon’s criticism was directed at proposals that could result in punishment as severe as an elected official’s removal from office if that person violates the proposed ordinances.
The proposals address two concepts: misconduct, which covers a wide range of decorum including sexually inappropriate or derogatory comments; and sharing information from closed sessions that aren’t open to the public.
The punishments for engaging in misconduct or leaking, as outlined by the proposals, range from a written reprimand to someone’s removal from office by a vote of the council.
It’s primarily the latter punishment that has drawn pushback from some citizens and community groups.
Opponents of the measures say only voters should have the power to remove someone from his or her elected office. They also say they’re concerned that punishing officials for sharing private city information could deter them from highlighting abuses of power.
City leaders say those fears are misplaced, arguing that the ordinances are being pursued to give the city recourse if an elected official acts or speaks in an inappropriate manner.
The public will have the chance to comment on the matter during a hearing at Bellevue’s next City Council meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday at 1500 Wall St.
“If they grab the power to override elections and remove duly elected city council members, they will never give up that power,” Shannon wrote in his letter.
Shannon’s letter was written in response to another letter sent to the city by Media of Nebraska, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting watchdog journalism. The group also opposes the proposals.
“It is our opinion that adding language that provides harsh penalties, including removal from office, for violating these arbitrary rules of conduct does not serve the interests of the citizens of Bellevue,” Media of Nebraska’s letter stated. “These proposals would have a chilling effect on the release of information to which the citizens are entitled.”
The World-Herald was one of the signatories of the media group’s letter.
In a joint interview this week, Bellevue Mayor Rusty Hike and Jim Ristow, the city administrator, said they have no interest in stifling council members’ ability to express themselves or engaging in government overreach.
The city does not intend to pursue someone’s removal from office unless the circumstances are extreme, Ristow said. He said he believes having established consequences for misconduct will be enough motivation for council members to act appropriately.
Hike and Ristow both said they’ve witnessed or heard of multiple times when a council member has made inappropriate comments, describing instances in which a council member has threatened physical harm or made sexual innuendos to women.
Ristow described a luncheon in which a councilman made an inappropriate comment to a woman. Ristow said he told the man that the comment was inappropriate, but other than a verbal reprimand, Ristow said the city has been unable to do much else.
The proposed rules, Ristow and Hike said, give the city an avenue to address such behavior.
“I don’t doubt that if the public knew some of the things being said — they’d be up in arms, and there would be a recall,” Hike said.
The men declined to name the councilman or offer more detail.
Since the proposals first went before the council in mid-October, the city has tweaked the language of how someone would be removed from office. The first draft of the ordinance required a three-fourths vote of the council to remove a member; the updated language would require a unanimous vote from the council, excluding the person under review.
Bellevue has modeled its misconduct language after similar codes in Fremont and Grand Island, both of which have pathways to remove elected officials from office.
As for leaking, Ristow and Hike said the ordinance was crafted to prevent council members from talking about information that is meant to be protected by closed sessions, such as city real estate deals and personnel matters.
If something inappropriate happens in a closed session, or if the city discusses something that should have been hashed out in the public eye, council members can still tell the public about it without reprimand, they said.
“There’s nothing in here that would punish anybody for whistleblowing on … wrongdoing,” Hike said. “There’s certainly no intent of that.”
“If we go out of those bounds, go to the rooftop and yell at the top of your lungs — we’re OK with that,” Ristow said.
John Bender, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor and First Amendment scholar, said Bellevue likely will continue to face “public perception problems” if it pursues the ability to remove democratically elected members of its City Council.
Bender said he believes the established methods of removing an elected official from office — a recall or a future election — are the most appropriate means of doing so. He said giving a city administration that power invites the possibility of abuse.
“I can easily imagine a situation where some members of the City Council or other board would want to eliminate a member who might be a gadfly …(someone who) simply has viewpoints that coincide with theirs,” Bender said.
“The citizens lose their representation, their vote and any pretense of oversight of the city,” Shannon wrote in his letter. “This is not the American way of governance.”