New Omaha City Ordinance to Fine Negligent Property Owners


November 18th, 2015

IMG_1003Omaha City Council President Ben Gray praised the work of his fellow Council Members during Tuesday’s council meeting. Members voted unanimously to pass a key ordinance  Gray said was one of his long-time priorities.

Before taking up their regular agenda items at Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Pete Festersen delivered the weekly convocation.

“I would just like to pass on our thoughts and our prayers to the people of Paris,” Festersen said. “Like those throughout the international community, we stand with the people of France, and condemn the senseless and violent attacks that occurred there this week.

“I also want to note the passing of Father Schlegel from Creighton University, a visionary leader for that institution and for our entire community.”

Upon returning to the agenda, council members approved several re-zoning ordinances which will allow for more businesses and homes to be built in Omaha, including one project at 60th Street and Sorensen Parkway, called Sorensen Place. Plans for the project include retail stores, a gas station, and 120 apartments.

When it came time to approve the council’s consent agenda—a non-event at most meetings—an appointment from the Mayor’s office to make George Achola a Commissioner of the Omaha Housing Authority drew criticism from Fred Conley, a former OHA Commissioner.

Conley told council members they should deny the appointment because, among other reasons, when Achola was the legal counsel for OHA, he failed to disclose to the Board that $2.5 million had been improperly transferred out of certain accounts.

“We need to leave the past in the past,” Conley said. “What we don’t need is to replicate the past by appointing people who were there, who did things that should not have been done. And as legal counsel, you have a special responsibility to report things to the Board of Directors.”

A representative from Mayor Jean Stothert’s office told council members they should approve Achola’s appointment without hesitation.

 The Council voted 6-1 to approve the appointment. Councilman Franklin Thompson was the lone No Vote.

The next major item on the council’s agenda was an ordinance to update the City’s policy on aggressive panhandling. A measure before the council aims to restrict people from asking for money in medians and other areas where safety could be an issue.

Omaha’s current policy says before asking for money for any reason, a person must first file a written statement with the chief of police. Amy Miller with the ACLU of Nebraska said that model is unworkable and unconstitutional.

Miller told Council members the ACLU is not looking to engage Omaha in a legal battle in Federal court, but the policy needs to change. Council members ultimately voted to put off making a decision on the ordinance for another three weeks.

Finally, council members amended Omaha’s property maintenance code by adding an Abandoned and Vacant Property Registration Ordinance. The new ordinance states the owner of qualifying properties—whether that’s a bank or a person—will be added to a City registration system and face fees and fines if the property isn’t brought up to code.

Jay Davis with the Planning Department told the council the ordinance is designed to target the responsible parties of the 800 or so vacant and abandoned homes in the City.

“If [the responsible party is] in compliance with the exterior and they keep it up, then they have nothing to worry about,” Davis said.

He continued, “If [the property] starts to be graffitied, it’s unsecured, the Police Department is making calls for vagrants inside, the Fire Department is making multiple calls—yeah that’s a property we’re going to be looking at.”

Council President Ben Gray thanked his colleagues for working together on the ordinance, and said he’s been looking forward to its passage for five years

“What this is going to do is send a message to some of our slumlords in the community,” Gray said, “who have not chosen to take care of their properties, who have chosen only to collect as much rent as they can get and then move on to the next thing—we’re going to address that.”

The Council voted unanimously to pass the Abandoned and Vacant Property Ordinance, which will take effect early next month.

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