Members of a group trying to stop the city of Hastings from demolishing the deteriorating 16th Street viaduct have filed an initiative petition for a special election on the issue, which led to other legal actions last week.
Paul Dietze presented the petition to Hastings City Clerk Kim Jacobitz on Nov. 4, but it wasn’t initially approved for circulation. The primary petitioners included Dietze, Norman Sheets and Alton Jackson.
In a letter dated Nov. 5, the clerk determined the petition wasn’t in its proper form, because it had been filed before provisional ballots from the Nov. 3 general election had been verified and the results were certified by the Adams County Canvassing Board.
“I am of the opinion that the prospective petition is premature,” the letter reads. “As such I cannot meet the statutory obligation under the Statutes, at this time.”
The results of the election were certified on Nov. 6.
On Nov. 9, Dietze, Jackson and Sheets filed a writ of mandamus against Jacobitz and a motion for a temporary restraining order against the members of the Hastings City Council. Both actions were filed in Adams County District Court.
The writ of mandamus asked a judge to order the clerk to approve the initiative petition for circulation and solicitation of signatures immediately. It claimed the clerk didn’t inform the plaintiffs of any necessary changes and that those changes be made pursuant to her statutory duty proscribed in Nebraska law.
In a second case, the group filed a motion for temporary restraining order to prevent the council from “considering, approving or implementing City Council Resolution 2020-62.”
That measure was filed against each member of the Hastings City Council — Jeniffer Beahm, Ginny Skutnik, Butch Eley, Ted Schroeder, Paul Hamelink, Chuck Rosenberg, Scott Snell and Matt Fong.
The group asked the judge to issue an order enjoining the city from considering Resolution No. 2020-62 until such time that they are legally allowed to circulate a second petition and submit it for certification and consideration in accordance with the statutory scheme governing initiatives.
“Passage of Resolution 2020-62 would likely require Plaintiffs to amend their Second Petition, which is currently an initiative, to a referendum, which the City Council has once before circumvented,” the complaint stated. “A referendum, followed by an initiative would require significantly more effort and money from Plaintiffs and Plaintiffs believe the City is, effectively, coordinating with the Clerk, seeking to frustrate Plaintiffs’ right to place the Second Petition on a ballot to be considered by the voters.”
Council members were served with the complaint on Nov. 9, just before the council meeting started.
“There was no ex parte restraining order entered,” said City Attorney Clint Schukei. “So while it was requested, it was not entered and so there was nothing that prohibited the council from going forward, talking about and voting on the Resolution 2020-62.”
Ex parte means the court can enter an order without hearing from the other side.
Schukei said the city would’ve complied with an order had an order been entered.
Both sides had the chance to make their case on Nov. 17 during a telephone conference call with Judge Terri Harder. Dietze, Jackson and Sheets were represented by attorneys Bradley Holbrook and Coy Clark with Jacobsen, Orr, Lindstrom and Holbrook in Kearney. The city was represented by Schukei and City Administrator Dave Ptak.
Following the conference call, the clerk approved the initiative petition for circulation by letter on Nov. 17, according to a journal entry and order by Harder dated Nov. 19.
The mandamus action was dismissed because the petition had been approved.
According to the journal entry, the city officials represented to the court that the timeline to begin physical removal and/or destruction of the 16th Street viaduct likely is to be longer than the time period in which the plaintiffs could obtain the signatures for the initiative petition, have it approved by the city and submitted to registered voters for vote by special election.
Harder’s order found that the motion for temporary restraining order, filed on Nov. 9, will be treated as a motion for preliminary injunction and a hearing on that motion is continued until either a special election on the initiative petition occurs or the city takes affirmative steps to begin removal of the viaduct.
The defendants were granted permission to file an answer to the complaint in this case out of time. If plaintiffs set the motion for preliminary injunction of any other matter for hearing in the case, defendants will have 14 days from service of that notice of hearing to file an answer to the operative complaint.
The petition reads, “The purpose of this voter initiative is for the City of Hastings to perform major repair on the 16th Street viaduct as outlined by the Olsson and Associates bridge engineer Tyler Kramer.”
The engineer listed on the petition is believed to refer to Tyler Cramer of engineering firm Olsson.
Dietze, Jackson and Holbrook couldn’t be reached for comment, or declined to comment, on the petition or the following court cases during the past two weeks.
Cramer is a bridge engineer who presented multiple options to the City Council in reports presented in February 2019 and November 2019. The viaduct was closed to traffic in May 2019 due to its deteriorating condition.
The least expensive option was to demolish the viaduct for about $1.46 million, which the council voted to do in December 2019.
Dietze, Jackson and Sheets were among a group of citizens that favored the extensive repair option, estimated to cost $3.1 million, and possibly extend the life of the existing structure 25-30 years.
The group collected about 2,700 signatures to reverse the council’s decision to raze the bridge and later formed a nonprofit organization named Hastings Citizens with a Voice.
The council reversed its decision and agreed to put the issue on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Since Cramer’s repair estimate was based on a visual condition assessment of the viaduct, the city needed more information before putting a potential bond amount before voters.
The city hired Engineering Specialists Inc. of Omaha to conduct a forensic investigation of the viaduct.
The report from ESI consisted of 260 pages of information and justifications that a repair wasn’t feasible due to the condition of the viaduct. Highlighting additional trouble spots, the ESI estimate for the project was about $7.5 million, which didn’t include costs associated with the Union Pacific Railroad.
Jay Bleier, the senior engineer for Olsson, told the council at its Aug. 24 meeting that their initial assessment of $3.1 million was no longer valid. Bleier said that factoring in other costs such as working with the Union Pacific Railroad, permitting, engineering costs, construction and testing, quality control and quality assurance, the costs could go up to at least $10 million.
Cramer also signed a letter dated Nov. 6 from Olsson to the City Council that explained that further engineering study would determine that making extensive repairs to the bridge will result in a greater potential for further repair and maintenance spending in the future.
“Our recommendation is that the bridge be demolished and, if deemed necessary through a traffic study, reconstruction of a modern bridge structure at the same alignment, or at another location to better benefit the City of Hastings,” the letter reads.
The holiday season in Hastings had an unconventional kickoff this year.
Christmas lights still were turned on in downtown for the first time on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, but it was done without thousands of people huddled, waiting for Santa Claus and Kool-Aid Man to help count down.
The Hastings Downtown Center Association announced in September it would not hold Celebration of Lights or its Trick-or-Treat events to cut down on crowds for public health reasons.
Tammy Orthmann, director of the Hastings Downtown Center Association, said in an interview Thursday afternoon it was the right decision.
“We were hoping and automatically assumed things would be better by now, but they are actually, in our area, worse,” Orthmann said. “We started to look for things the community could be involved it that wouldn’t actually mean they had to be together in big crowds.”
So the Downtown Center Association developed its Holiday Stocking Decorating Contest.
Participants purchased the 40-inch wooden stockings for $5 apiece to offset material costs. The stockings were decorated and displayed in downtown storefronts.
All together there are nearly 75 wooden stockings.
Voting begins Monday with ballots available at Jacobi’s Carpet One, 236 N. Denver Ave. Ballots also will be among numerous coupons, samples and key chains inside the 200 swag bags to be handed out during Shop Small Saturday on Nov. 28.
Ballots also will be available at the Blue Moon Coffee Co., 635 W. Second St., on Nov. 28.
Voters can choose up to five stockings. There are three categories: business, individuals and nonprofits.
All ballots need to be returned to Jacobi’s by Dec. 2.
“A lot of the businesses downtown did them too, which is really great,” Orthmann said.
Orthmann considers Nov. 28’s Shop Small Saturday to be the Super Bowl for downtown Hastings.
“People always think my favorite event is Celebration of Lights, and I love that, but I really put my heart and soul into Shop Small because I feel like that really epitomizes everything that we do down here,” she said of the event, which highlights small businesses.
Thursday was unconventional not just because there weren’t crowds or official Celebration of Lights activities, but also because the temperature was still around 70 degrees at 5 p.m., when Celebration of Lights normally would have started.
“It’s bittersweet because last year everybody froze,” Orthmann said. “(Thursday) it would just be a beautiful night for it, so that makes me very sad. But considering the circumstances we’re in, with the health measures and everything I think we really did make the right decision. I don’t have a problem with that.”
State and local government entities, private-sector philanthropic groups and media organizations from across Nebraska will work together on a unified campaign to promote best practices related to public health as the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic continues.
In a virtual news conference Thursday morning, leaders unveiled the “Do Right, Right Now” campaign, which will run over the next six to nine months, exhorting stressed and pandemic-weary Nebraskans to do their part in thwarting further spread of the virus.
“These messages will be promoted in a positive and upbeat manner,” said Dr. Adi Pour, health director for the Douglas County Health Department and one of the prime instigators of the campaign developed by the public relations firm Vic Gutman & Associates.
The campaign will include messaging in radio, television, print, digital and outdoor media across the state. The Hastings Tribune is among more than 45 Nebraska media outlets that have signed on as partners in the effort, agreeing to donate resources to disseminate campaign messages.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and his wife, first lady Susanne Shore, were among participants in Thursday’s news conference.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt also offered remarks, as the Nebraska Department of Education is a key sponsor in making what started out as an Omaha-centered campaign now statewide in its reach.
“The campaign is ultimately reinforcing things we’ve heard from CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), local public health and the governor, as well,” Blomstedt said.
The campaign is comprehensive and will feature diverse materials. Pour said some of the key messages will be urging Nebraskans to get their influenza vaccinations this fall and winter, encouraging them to get tested for COVID-19 when appropriate, and promoting awareness of available mental health services for those in psychological distress as a result of the pandemic.
“Our goal is to reduce the rate of new cases and hospitalizations across the state,” Pour said.
Dr. James Lawler of Nebraska Medicine, the health care network operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Bellevue Medical Center and UNMC Physicians, shared sobering statistics related to the current surge of COVID-19 cases across the state.
“We are in the most dangerous time of this entire pandemic,” said Lawler, an associate professor of internal medicine, director of International Programs and Innovation at the Global Center for Health Security, and director of clinical and biodefense research at the National Strategic Research Institute.
“Case counts are dramatically higher than they were in the spring, and they continue to go up at an alarming pace.”
Statewide, Lawler said, nearly 1,000 COVID-19 patients now are hospitalized, and the doubling time has been reduced to two to three weeks — meaning that by early to mid-December the state could have 2,000 patients in hospitals being treated for the viral infection.
According to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s 14-day average total number of staffed hospital beds was 4,561 as of Thursday. Lawler said the kind of growth in COVID-19 hospitalizations now on the horizon won’t be sustainably manageable unless things change.
“I have never been as frightened about the status of the health system as I am about the status of the health system in Nebraska right now,” Lawler said.
North Dakota and South Dakota, which have been featured prominently in the news in recent days as they face overwhelming hospitalization numbers, are two to three weeks ahead of Nebraska on the hospitalization curve, Lawler said.
“We’re now getting into the territory of North and South Dakota,” he said.
While planning for the Do Right, Right Now campaign began in September and the campaign always was planned to launch in November, Pour said, that launch is coming in the midst of a critical period for the state.
Dr. Matthew Bruner, chief medical officer at Regional West Health Services in Scottsbluff, said the current situation in the Nebraska Panhandle is right in line with what other officials described in eastern Nebraska.
As of Tuesday, the test positivity rate for the novel coronavirus in Scotts Bluff County was 68.2%. Statewide, the rate was 23.4%.
Bruner said health officials in his area are looking for support from city and county governments with measures to help thwart the spread of the virus, and that the new public relations campaign should help reach skeptical members of the public whose cooperation is needed.
“We have a stubborn population, so ‘Do the Right Thing, Right Now’ is exactly what our population would need,” Bruner said.
Ricketts has implemented additional directed health measures recently to help address the case surge. While he continues to oppose mask mandates — a position that seemed to put him at odds with some of the other speakers at Thursday’s news conference — the state has developed a phased approach that will lead to increasingly stringent restrictions as hospitalization thresholds are met.
Ricketts and other officials also are promoting a whole series of precautionary measures — such items as social distancing, wearing masks indoors when social distancing is difficult, and frequent handwashing, among others — that should layer over each other in a “Swiss cheese” manner to help protect public health.
“Nebraskans have always stepped up to take care of each other in times of need,” Ricketts said. “ … It’s time for us all to do the right thing, and do it right now.”
Like he did last spring, Ricketts again is encouraging Nebraskans to limit their trips to the grocery store to once a week, and for adults to shop alone rather than bring along their children.
Currently, many officials also are emphasizing the importance of small, household holiday celebrations this year rather than the large, extended family gatherings that could turn into superspreader events.
“This year we just have to think about our loved ones’ health and safety so they can be around to celebrate the holidays with us next year,” Blomstedt said.
Ricketts and Shore went into quarantine recently after having close contact with someone who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.
Shore, who in the past worked as a hospital nurse, said she understands the difficult jobs hospital-based health professionals have to do even in good times, let alone during a pandemic.
“We need to start protecting ourselves so we can stay out of the hospital,” she said.
The Omaha Community Foundation and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation both are playing key supportive roles in the campaign.
Four more residents of the South Heartland Health District have died of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, bringing the district’s death toll related to the virus to 28.
The victims were an Adams County man in his 70s, two Clay County men in their 70s and a Nuckolls County man in his 80s. All four had underlying health conditions, and the three men from Clay and Nuckolls counties were hospitalized.
“We are sad to report the loss of four more South Heartland residents to COVID-19,” said Michele Bever, South Heartland health department executive director. “Our hearts go out to the families who lost their loved ones.”
The four men all had been recorded earlier in South Heartland statistics as positive cases. The health department doesn’t announce deaths as being related to COVID-19 until the cause of death is confirmed on death certificates.
In a news release Thursday night, Bever also reported 176 new laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases for Tuesday through Thursday, bringing the district’s running case total to 2,407.
The new confirmed cases for the three-day period include 118 in Adams, 31 in Clay, 20 in Nuckolls and seven in Webster. By county, the cumulative case counts are 1,625 in Adams, 369 in Clay, 234 in Nuckolls, and 179 in Webster.
The neighboring Two Rivers Public Health Department reported that Kearney County had recorded 18 new positive cases Monday through Wednesday. Franklin County recorded three, and Harlan County recorded six.
The Two Rivers district also includes Buffalo, Phelps, Gosper and Dawson counties.
With Thanksgiving just a week away, Bever encouraged area constituents to plan ahead for a safe holiday and keep celebrations small and household-based.
“Traditional get-togethers like Thanksgiving gatherings can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu,” she said. “The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household. If you plan any gatherings with people outside your household, take steps to make your celebration safer.”
As of Thursday, 67.74% of all inpatients in South Heartland district hospitals were being treated for COCID-19. About 18% of all intensive care unit beds in the district were available for new patients.
The district’s three hospitals are Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, Brodstone Memorial Hospital in Superior and Webster County Community Hospital in Red Cloud.
Bever urged residents to avoid the three Cs to help slow the spread of the virus: avoid crowded places, avoid close contact, and avoid confined spaces.
“As we celebrate the fall and winter holidays, let’s give thanks to all of the health care providers and community safety personnel, the educators and school staff, the businesses, churches, families and individuals who are doing their part to protect our communities and care for our loved ones,” Bever said. “Let’s each do our part to keep our families and community safe through the holidays, and to protect our district’s health and safety services, schools, childcare services and long-term care facilities. Everyone can make Thanksgiving safer by taking steps to reduce the spread of this virus, everywhere we go.”
For South Heartland virus statistics visit www.southheartlandhealth.org. Two Rivers statistics are available at www.trphd.org.