Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog
OMAHA—Some “yeses”, several “maybes” and one “no.”
That’s the early line from some 20 metro area lawmakers asked by Nebraska Watchdog if they back a bill opening up the powerful Omaha arena board’s secret records.
At the same time Nebraska Watchdog has learned that some legal-eagles in Omaha and the state capitol question if the bill, as currently written, drops the ball and doesn’t cover the Metropolitan and Convention Authority’s documents.
A public hearing on the bill, which followed a series of special reports by Nebraska Watchdog, is scheduled Thursday before the Legislature’s Government Committee which must first OK the bill in order for it to go to the full legislature.
For ten years MECA, which runs CenturyLink Center, TD Ameritrade Ballpark and the Civic Auditorium, has operated in a legal shadow: Although MECA falls under the Open Meetings Act, it does not have to comply with the Nebraska Public Records Law.
Eleven Omaha area lawmakers, including Senators Ernie Chambers and Brad Ashford who are pushing the bill, tell Nebraska Watchdog they either support the legislation outright or are inclined to vote for it.
Four are undecided, three have not responded to Nebraska Watchdog’s question and one lawmaker is a definite no.
Sen. John Nelson of Omaha says he opposes the legislation, LB778, because it “falls outside the purpose and intent of the Open Meetings Law.”
Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, is in the middle looking for more information.
Smith tells Nebraska Watchdog “it seems appropriate to expect this transparency however I’m hearing there may be concerns with competitiveness.”
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who backs the bill, is not worried it hurts MECA’s ability to battle for concerts, conventions and other events with cities such as Lincoln, Kansas City and Des Moines.
According to the legislation that “confidential information…is protected,” says Mello.
But other wording in the bill is raising a more basic question: Does the legislation cover MECA in the first place?
Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz needs convincing.
“I have read the bill but the definition section arguably does not cover MECA,” Kratz tells Nebraska Watchdog.
“That’s not a big problem,” says Ashford, who adds there’s plenty of time to make any needed changes.
One set of records Ashford wants on the table was brought to light by Nebraska Watchdog’s recent investigation of former MECA member Jaime Gutierrez Mora.
Although she resigned in the face of a residency flap—she didn’t live in the city as she said she did—it was her janitorial company’s million dollar contract with MECA, a contract she maintained while on the board, that infuriated some members of the public.
Because MECA does not fall under the public records law she did not have to file a “Potential Conflict of Interest Statement” with the state, making her firm’s deal with MECA almost invisible
During Nebraska Watchdog’s investigation MECA officials noted that Gutierrez Mora signed a copy of MECA’s own “Code of Business Ethics.”
When Nebraska Watchdog asked to see the copy she signed we were told “this is an internal corporate document and not available for public inspection.”
That explanation rankles Jack Gould of Common Cause who tells Nebraska Watchdog, “Should millions in tax dollars flow into an organization that is not fully defined under Nebraska law and clearly lacks public oversight?”
While it’s not clear if MECA will testify against the bill, it is clear the arena board doesn’t like it.
“When we’re competing for concerts, competing for sports events, competing for anything at this facility we can’t let people see our books,” board chairman John Lund told KETV.
But when it comes to leaking certain information Republican Mayor Jean Stothert, who along with the city council appoints MECA’s members, agrees with Democrat Mello.
“With city owned facilities, the taxpayers expect transparency with the finances and how the facilities are managed,” Stothert tells Nebraska Watchdog. “The bill in its present form does just that. Any proprietary information which could affect competitiveness of securing venues, events, etc, is protected in the bill.”
Contact Joe Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org and listen to Joe every Monday morning at 7:40 on KFAB radio in Omaha.
To subscribe to news updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no charge, click here