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City Hall: Does the city already have the protections sought in proposed fairness ordinance?

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

The fate of the so-called fairness ordinance in Lincoln is in flux — but it’s worth noting that the protections supporters seek still exist, for now.

The announcement of an initiative to get the question on the November ballot is the latest development in a dizzying four months marked by passage of the ordinance that broadly updated city code and expanded protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity; a successful referendum petition; and the City Council’s decision to rescind it rather than risk defeat at the ballot box.

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Just a little more than a week ago, Tom Beckius, one of four council members who voted to rescind the ordinance, pointed out that the city — even without the updated ordinance — investigates complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In fact, the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, charged with investigating discrimination claims involving housing, employment and public accommodation, has been investigating claims involving sexual orientation and gender identity since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2020.

In the landmark case, the high court ruled the definition of "sex" in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

The case was related to employment, but the Biden administration issued an executive order directing all federal agencies to recognize that federal bans on sex discrimination include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Then, in June 2021, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird signed an executive order mandating that the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights investigate such claims.

So, why, if an executive order is in place, did supporters want to see the protections enshrined in city code?

The short answer is, it’s more permanent.

A mayor who didn’t agree with the executive order could rescind it, said City Attorney Yohance Christie. To change a city ordinance requires a majority vote by the City Council — and that action is subject to a referendum.

That, of course, is what happened with both of the fairness ordinances approved by two city councils a decade apart. One sat in limbo for 10 years, until last week, when this City Council rescinded both.

The council did so, not because it opposed the protections, but because at least some members feared the transgender community would be targeted and that supporters weren’t prepared to win at the ballot box against well-organized, well-funded opponents.

Another difference from the executive order is that the ordinance was broader, Christie said. It updated the code in various ways, including adding protections for active military and veterans and updating language regarding disabilities.

The proposed ballot language in the latest initiative includes many of those updates, too, a point supporters will surely make as they collect signatures in the coming months.

Vaccine incentive ends

Lancaster County board members Tuesday ended a vaccine incentive the county had offered employees during the pandemic, a program that resulted in about two-thirds of its employees being vaccinated.

The county commissioners passed the resolution last September, after hearing from some department heads that vaccination rates were low. The information was anecdotal, because the county didn’t require proof of vaccination.

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But commissioners wanted to encourage employees to get vaccinated, so they passed a resolution reimbursing employees about $200 for the vaccine and $59 for the booster.

To be reimbursed, employees did have to provide proof of vaccination, and 686 of the county’s 1,019 employees were reimbursed as of the June 9 pay period.

The incentive was offered to all employees — full-time, part-time, seasonal and those who work on an on-call basis, said Barb McIntyre, city-county personnel director.

The county allocated about $200,000 in federal American Rescue Act funds for the incentive program and spent about $186,000, said County Budget Director Dennis Myers.

Early on, lots of employees took advantage. In October 2021, the county spent $77,120 on reimbursements. It began to decline after that, with the county spending $1,126 in May and $355 for the first pay period in June.

McIntyre told the board the county has gotten a few emails from employees who want to take advantage of the program before it ends Aug. 1.

A new sound system

Pinnacle Bank Arena is getting a new sound amplifier.

The West Haymarket JPA, the quasi-governmental agency created to oversee creation and management of the arena and other West Haymarket redevelopment projects, approved the purchase of the amplifier for $61,980 at a special meeting last week.

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The arena’s sound system failed during the state high school basketball tournament in March, according to Chief Assistant City Attorney Chris Connolly.

While touring bands performing at the arena bring their own sound systems, other events, such as basketball games and graduation ceremonies, use the arena’s sound system.

Renting equipment costs about $4,000 for each event, Connolly said, so the city asked the JPA board to hold a special meeting to approve the lowest bid for the amplifier rather than wait for the next scheduled meeting in August.

Tim Clare, a University of Nebraska regent and member of the JPA board, noted that a new sound system would have cost about $250,000, but arena staff was able to pinpoint the problem and order just the amplifier.

Preserving Robber's Cave history

Robber’s Cave — carved into sandstone south of Van Dorn Park as an early brewery warehouse before becoming a gathering place for adventurous teens and ultimately an official tourist spot — can now become even more official.

The cave already is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Now, History Nebraska gave the city of Lincoln a $40,000 matching grant to develop a management plan for Robber’s Cave, digitize material related to historical resources, make more information available on the website and to hold lectures.

The grant was one of three announced by History Nebraska as part of its certified local government program designed to increase local preservation activities.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

Related to this story

History Nebraska gave Lincoln a $40,000 grant to develop a management plan for Robber’s Cave, digitize material, make more information available on the website and to hold lectures.

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