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Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

Andy Stebbing

Andy Stebbing

An alleged illegal posting — an invitation to a campaign fundraising event for Lancaster County Treasurer Andy Stebbing — on what the County Board considers the official county treasurer Facebook page was quickly removed Monday morning. 

In fact, the entire Facebook page is gone, forever.

And in its place there's a debate over whether it was an official county agency Facebook site, or not. 

State law prohibits using a government resource for campaigning. An official county Facebook page is a government resource, thus posting an invitation to a candidate's fundraiser on that site is illegal.

So when Ann Ames, chief deputy administrator for the Lancaster County commissioners, saw the fundraising event on what she considered the county treasurer's official Facebook page, she sent Stebbing an email suggesting he remove the post.  

In response, Stebbing apologized and removed the entire page.

But Stebbing said the Facebook page was not an official county treasurer's page. It was always a political site. 

"We never did have an official Facebook page for the county treasurer's office. It just looked like it was," Stebbing said in a telephone interview Tuesday. 

"It was confusing." 

Stebbing said his deputy will develop an official Facebook page for the office and he will have a separate one for his campaign.

"Clearly, I want to be more black and white." 

Ames said she had that page listed as the treasurer's official Facebook page. 

She also asked Stebbing to remove his treasurer's office email address from his campaign website, a violation of state law. He did remove it.  

Stebbing is already crossways with commissioners. He has pleaded not guilty to five felony counts regarding his sale of vehicles, and has refused to step down as treasurer, as suggested by County Board Chairman Todd Wiltgen. Instead, he's running for a third term. 

Some county agencies have Facebook pages to let people know what's going on. Social media is one way people get information, said Ames.

County Election Commissioner David Shively uses his page to provide pertinent information, including election results. He recently noted Dec. 1 was the first day to file for the 2018 elections.

The county emergency management agency posts storm warnings. The sheriff’s Facebook page posted an interview with Sheriff Terry Wagner about vehicle-deer crashes.

Candidates can have their own campaign or private Facebook pages, where they can post campaign-related information.

Lancaster County commissioners want to make sure the official county agency Facebook pages are in compliance with state law, Ames said.

Fire pits versus open fires

Almost every time the Journal Star writes about the city ban on open fires, someone contacts me about the unfairness of allowing fire pits while banning open fires.

Often it's people who don’t like the smoke from a neighbor’s fire pit.

If one is bad for your health, why not the other, they ask. 

Here is an excerpt from one reader’s comments. 

“It amazes me that there is no smoking in bars and the mayor is writing to Kansas about smoke, but we cannot sit in our own homes or on our patios without being smoked out by the neighbors. The minute the weather turns nice we cannot open our windows or sit outside due to being surrounded by these fire pits.

“And they are not the cute crystals with dancing flames you see at the home shows; they are large bonfires that burn for hours.”

City staff contacted about the fire pit-versus-open fire issue were happy to talk about what city code allows or doesn’t, but were more reticent to discuss why the city allows one air pollutant but not the other.

Apparently, the two sets of rules are found in the international fire code, used as a model by communities across the country.

Which doesn’t make it right, just common.

In addition, an open fire is not only a potential source of air pollution but also more likely to be a fire hazard, get out of control, spread to neighbors' yards.

There are strict rules for fire pits, or recreational fires, which must use clean, dry wood, must be no more than 3 feet in diameter and be supervised by a responsible adult.

And the smoke from a fire pit can be considered a public health nuisance.

Neighbors bothered by the smoke from a fire pit have two options:

* They can report it to the city-county Health Department. The department typically contacts the offending party (often by mail) to inform them they cannot allow smoke to impact a neighboring property and that to do so is a violation of the Lincoln municipal code, according to Scott Holmes, with the health department. 

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* They can call the fire department, and firefighters can ask a homeowner to extinguish a fire pit, if the atmospheric conditions warrant it, according to Bill Moody, chief fire inspector.

Here’s what city code says: “When open burning, recreational fires or outdoor fireplaces create, or add to a hazardous situation, the fire code official or the fire department is authorized to order extinguishment of the fire.”

“It’s up to the guys on the rigs. They have the ability and authority to do that,” Moody said.

“It is a little bit dicey," he said. "It (the smoke from fire pits) does offend people. Sometimes you can’t open windows. It is very difficult to enforce.

“Fire pits are like fireworks. You either love them or hate them,” said Moody.

Regional Center opens more beds

The number of inmates at the Lancaster County Jail awaiting a bed at the Lincoln Regional Center has dropped. At the end of September, there were just three inmates awaiting a bed, while there had been 10 to 12 in previous months, said Brad Johnson, county jail director.

These are people who judges have determined are mentally incompetent to stand trial and who stay at the Regional Center in order to restore competency.

The Lincoln Regional Center has freed up some beds by transferring people to the Norfolk Regional Center, said County Commissioner Todd Wiltgen.

The average wait is still long — inmates are spending an average of almost 69 days in jail awaiting a Regional Center bed, based on the fall quarter numbers.

But that is dropping, said Johnson. And the waiting list numbers are also getting smaller, he said.

“There is still room for improvement, but they are heading in the right direction,” Johnson said.

No opposition to landfill expansion

The city’s request to expand Bluff Road landfill operations eastward met no opposition at a City Council hearing Monday, as expected, and the council unanimously approved moving forward.

The land is already owned by the city and has been earmarked for future landfill expansion for decades, so its use as a landfill comes as no surprise.

The city will not likely need to use the new area for another 16 years. But it has taken communities that long to find a new landfill site because of neighbor opposition, said Donna Garden, assistant director for Public Works and Utilities.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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