By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – The organizers of a referendum for a Lincoln gay rights ordinance are considering suing the city to force its leaders to schedule an election, as was sought by 10,000 people who signed the petition last year.
The Lincoln City Council voted Monday to put two issues on the ballot in May for Lincoln voters to decide, but not the gay rights ordinance, leaving those who circulated petitions wondering why Lincoln city officials won’t schedule the election they requested through a petition drive.
David Bydalek, a former assistant attorney general who is now executive director of Family First Nebraska, said the fact city leaders have now scheduled a vote on two issues while snubbing their noses at those who signed the referendum petition “irked a lot of people.” About 10,000 people – four times the necessary number — signed a petition referring the ordinance to a vote after the City Council approved the ordinance in May 2012. That gave the council two options — rescind the ordinance or put the issue to a vote. Nine months ago, Mayor Chris Beutler said he would urge the council to put it to a vote, but little has happened since.
Bydalek said the election should have been scheduled within a reasonable time after the petitions were turned in.
“It’s clear that they believe they have as much time as they want to do what the charter clearly says they have to do,” Bydalek said. “They really have no legal basis or no real reason for putting it off. They clearly don’t plan on doing what the charter compels them to do.”
Some suspect city officials didn’t want to schedule the gay rights vote during the spring city election because it would become a campaign issue, but Bydalek said that’s not a legitimate reason to delay the vote.
“They don’t know how to deal with it, and they don’t want to deal with it,” he said.
Councilman Carl Eskridge introduced the original ordinance extending civil rights protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He said the issue will be put to a vote likely some time next year.
“Given the division in the community when we had the hearing last summer, we felt that it was best to let it lie for a little while,” Eskridge said, referring to the contentious public hearing on the ordinance and subsequent gay hate crime hoax from a Lincoln woman, Charlie Rogers, who recently entered a plea of no contest.
“It’s just too politicized,” he said. “We just need to have a more local discussion about how it affects our community.”
He said there’s “interest in the religious community” to talk about the issue, with classes and meetings and discussions over the next year.
He said the referendum essentially nullified the ordinance, so it’s not in effect. But the City Council did not want to revoke it by a vote, he said.
“It’s not a question of support to put it on the ballot,” Eskridge said. “They fully intend to put it on the ballot. It’s just a matter of figuring out when the community is ready to do it in a reasonable, rational way.”
Al Riskowski, head of the Nebraska Family Council, which helped gather petition signatures, said when he first heard news about a charter amendment he thought it was for the gay rights issue. He was wrong.
He said city statutes don’t say how soon a referendum election must be held after signatures are verified. Supporters of the referendum will soon decide whether to take legal action seeking a writ of mandamus that would force city officials to perform their statutory duty.
“The referendum was not about the ordinance itself, it was about putting it to a vote of the people,” Riskowski said.
He said the mayor’s office has not communicated with his group. Beutler’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
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