Omaha World-Herald. Dec. 18, 2020.

Editorial: Feuding hurts the Nebraska Environmental Trust; Legislature must act

The Nebraska Environmental Trust stands as one of the state’s most visionary and successful endeavors. Since 1994, the trust has provided some $350 million in grants, distributed throughout the state and supplemented with local contributions. Those projects have aided communities across Nebraska and bolstered the state’s environmental health.

The Legislature has a duty next session to help the trust by clearing up the uncertainty over the appropriate criteria for awarding grants. The latest round of fierce disagreement over grant selection — for the second time this year — shows the need for action by Nebraska lawmakers.

The first controversy this year centered on ethanol promotion. The trust board voted to defund $1.8 million for a set of high-scoring habitat grants and award the money instead to a lower-scoring project to finance ethanol pumps. More recently, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy has requested $3.7 million, which critics say would go toward regulatory action that falls outside the trust’s proper criteria.

The disagreements have pitted Gov. Pete Ricketts against the group Friends of the Environmental Trust, which consists mainly of former trust board members and those involved in establishing the trust.

The governor, by state law, appoints the nine citizen members on the trust board. The other five members are state agency heads; one of them is Jim Macy — head of the Department of Environment and Energy that’s requesting the $3.7 million.

The Legislature writes the laws that determine the trust’s duties, and lawmakers will be inexcusably shirking their responsibility if they fail to take up this issue during the 2021 session. The ugly feuding over the trust’s proper function is harming the ability of this successful state organization to carry out its services to Nebraska.

Part of the problem is a longstanding one: State officials and interest groups, searching for a funding source for projects, opportunistically attempt to use the trust (which is funded in part by the Nebraska State Lottery) as a convenient resource. Major controversy erupted in 2011, for example, over efforts to divert $7 million annually toward addressing various water needs in Nebraska.

The value of the trust’s work, in partnership with organizations across Nebraska, is without doubt. Consider a sampling of projects funded by the trust in 2019:

New approaches to biodiversity conservation. Cooperative efforts to strength water quality, including controlling nitrate leaching into groundwater. Renewable energy storage. Work to control red cedars and other invasive species. Incorporation of cover crops in cropping systems. Wildlife conservation. Grassland enhancement. Pollinator support.

For too long, the Legislature has allowed controversies to harm the functioning of the Environment Trust. Next session, lawmakers must do their duty and, at last, provide the needed clarity in state law.

___

Grand Island Independent. Dec. 20, 2020

Editorial: New YWCA Grand Island program puts focus on jobs

YWCA Grand Island has embarked on a new program to address the unique needs of women who have lost jobs or just need to return to the workforce due to the pandemic.

The newly opened Women’s Empowerment Center works to help women find new jobs by providing job resources and even transportation to interviews, as well as offering on-site child care.

“There’s tons of research out that shows women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” said Danielle Helzer, YWCA mission impact director. “We have more women than men working in the service industry, so when you’re talking about the time the restaurants and hotels closed or have limitations, that means a reduction of staff as well.”

Women also typically have a greater responsibility for child care than men, so they are dealing with that as they try to find a job that will work with their children’s schedules.

The new program is designed to equip women with skills they need, and then empower them to make the choices they want to make for their lives, Helzer said.

WEC staff members work one-on-one with clients to develop resumes, do mock interviews and help clients explore options in different industries. They may have only worked in restaurant or hotel jobs, but they may have the skills to transition to a different type of work that will be more reliable as the area continues to deal with the pandemic.

The program also helps connect women with needed services. It collaborates with local agencies and organizations that provide assistance with rent and utilities, and food assistance.

WEC is also developing long-term programs and courses.

Working with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Office, it will be offering a “Cook and Learn” class in January via Zoom.

“Our mission is to eliminate racism and empower women. I believe this program is the embodiment of our mission,” YWCA Executive Director Amy Bennett said. “We know women have taken the hardest economic hit from the pandemic. It is the goal of the WEC to come alongside women and support them as they work to recover.”

Everyone in our community has been affected in some way by the coronavirus pandemic, but those who have lost their ability to make enough money to support their families need help getting back on their feet. This is a program that will make the women who participate and their community stronger once the pandemic has receded.

___

Lincoln Journal Star. Dec. 20, 2020.

Editorial: Transparency critical for law enforcement after protests.

Six months after protests for justice for George Floyd were coopted by violent actors, new details about the unrest emerged publicly for the first time.

Perhaps none were more jarring than learning a .223 bullet pierced the window just a few feet from a Lincoln Police Department officer who was photographing the night’s events from the third floor of the Hall of Justice.

By sharing that – which had been alluded to in June without much detail – some Lincolnites’ perspectives no doubt changed on the riots that undermined the important goals protesters sought to underscore.

This exercise, though delayed, also demonstrates the importance of transparency in law enforcement – which breeds accountability – and It’s also why the Journal Star newsroom dived so deeply into the aftermath of the protests earlier this month.

The public benefits from a two-way flow of information during this time of heightened tension and scrutiny.

Unfortunately, such transparency is not universal among law enforcement agencies.

The Nebraska State Patrol and Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office declined to provide their use-of-force policies to the Journal Star, citing concerns about officer safety over sharing training materials.

Safety for the officers, troopers and deputies on the front lines of public safety understandably must be a paramount focus. That said, publicly reviewing the actions law enforcement officers took in a tense, chaotic situation helps to provide the public the clearest picture possible of what occurred and what can improve.

Further to Lincoln’s credit, its police department and elected officials have been proactive about building relationships with communities of color after the protests. Actions such as expanding the police advisory board and beginning a “Keep Cops Accountable” initiative are proof of a desire for improvement.

Though the speed at which progress is occurring may frustrate some who want more immediate reform, recall the Chinese proverb of Lao Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lasting, systemic transformation can’t – and won’t – occur overnight, but this summer’s protests have proved their message, too, won’t be silenced without change.

The most iconic scene of Lincoln’s protests occurred on the north steps of the Capitol. A drone captured footage of organizers kneeling with Nebraska State Patrol Maj. Mike Jahnke for nine minutes – the length of time Floyd had an officer’s knee on his neck before his death.

The law enforcement officers with Jahnke who’d been tasked to protect the Capitol went inside the building during the powerful gesture. As they did, they passed beneath a clarion call for transparency: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”

Indeed it is.

With more eyes of Nebraskans than ever before watching the actions of law enforcement, agencies would be best served by being as open with the citizens they’re sworn to protect and serve – as LPD did recently – as possible.

___

END