Starting at the beginning: A look at how Fremont got to June 21 election

2010-06-11T11:22:00Z Starting at the beginning: A look at how Fremont got to June 21 electionTribune staff Fremont Tribune
June 11, 2010 11:22 am  • 

Editor's note: Information for this article was compiled from previously published stories in the Fremont Tribune.

On a March night in 2007, a group of about 25 people gathered at Keene Memorial Library to talk about an issue that eventually would touch off a two-year debate.

The seeds of the June 21 election on a proposed ordinance that would ban the harboring and hiring of and renting to illegal immigration may have been planted on March 20, 2007, when Fremont resident Andy Schnatz led an effort to create a local chapter of the Nebraskans Advisory Group.

That night Schnatz and Susan Smith of Omaha, the group's founder, talked about goals and their anger about the state of immigration policy.

"These people are coming into this country illegally," Schnatz said that night. "They're criminals, and they want rights. They have no rights. I'm a veteran. I just want my country back."

Smith said the ultimate goal was to have benefits and services to illegal immigrant shut down and employers who hire illegal immigrants punished.

But it would be more than a year later - May 13, 2008 - before the issue would surface at the Fremont City Council.

That night, Bob Warner, who then represented Ward 4, introduced a proposal to direct city staff to look into the feasibility of an ordinance on illegal immigration. A motion for the study was approved on a 5-3 vote with Gary Bolton, Scott Getzschman and John Anderson voting against it.

Scott Schaller, who represented Ward 3 at the time, thought the city could "come up with something that would work for Fremont."

City Attorney Dean Skokan told the council similar ordinances across the country had been ruled unconstitutional.

"Once there is a federal law, municipalities cannot pass a law that would do the same thing," he said. "I'm not telling you this can't be done. I'm telling you it's going to be very difficult."

Instead of a study of the issue, however, a proposed ordinance was brought before the council on June 10, 2008. At the time, the council tabled the issue for at least a month.

Bolton expressed concern the proposal would land Fremont in court. He said he wasn't opposed to the idea, but he was opposed to wasting city money.

"If we can find an ordinance on illegal immigration that's legal, constitutional, enforceable and will pass muster in the courts, I'll support it," he said. "Otherwise, I don't want to waste the city's money taking this to court."

Warner said the city should try it anyway.

"We don't know if it will stand up in the courts unless we do it," he said.

A proposed ordinance was introduced at the July 8, 2008, council meeting, but the first draft did not contain a provision that banned the hiring of illegal immigrants.

A revised ordinance - basically the same one before voters on June 21 - was presented to council members later that month.

Warner said he believed the ordinance would free the city of illegal immigrants.

"All I want it to do is prohibit harboring, hiring and or renting to illegal immigrants. That's all," he said. "If they're here documented, I'm fine with that. I am against illegals because they are breaking the law that all citizens must respect and obey."

The revised proposal was released just days before the July 29, 2008, city council meeting that be one focus of the debate for the next two years. That meeting was moved to the Fremont High School auditorium in anticipation of a large crowd.

It was to be the second of three scheduled readings of the ordinance.

Prior to the meeting, City Administrator Bob Hartwig said the proposed ordinance "was largely prepared by the Immigration Reform Law Institute," which is an arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

That city council meeting would last at least four hours, 30 minutes. More than 1,000 people packed the auditorium to hear 3 1/2 hours of testimony for and against the proposed ordinance from Fremont residents and residents of other communities, including some from Iowa.

But what was supposed to be just a second reading of the ordinance turned into the final one when, on a 7-1 vote, council members suspended the rules and put the matter to a vote.

It ended in a 4-4 tie, which defeated the proposal. Council members Charlie Janssen, Mary Marsh, Schaller and Warner voted for the ordinance; Anderson, Bolton, Getzschman and Jon Gilfry voted against it.

While the proposal would have been defeated with the tie vote, Mayor "Skip" Edwards broke it by also voting no.

"Control of illegal immigration is a federal issue," Edwards said. "I'm bound by the law, too. All of us want something done to correct the situation. We can help best by pressuring the U.S. government to take action."

On the surface, it appeared the proposed ordinance and the immigration issue were dead.

But the next round was just beginning.

What happened at the July 29, 2008, council meeting prompted one Fremont man to attempt to get on the ballot to challenge Edwards and another to enter the race as a write-in candidate.

Carl Schaffner began a petition drive to place his name on the November 2008 ballot. He attempt would come up just short. Almost two years later he challenged Anderson for his Ward 4 seat in the Republican primary, but he lost that race, too.

Wes Homes entered the race as a write-in candidate. That effort also failed with Edwards easily winning re-election in November 2008.

By then, though, an effort to force a vote on the proposed ordinance was under way. Led by Jerry Hart, Wanda Kotas and John Wiegert, the drive was to collect the more than 3,000 signatures necessary to hold a special election.

Meanwhile, Edwards had created a task force, led by Fremont businessman Bill Eckler, to study the illegal immigration issue. The task force would develop recommendations that were presented to the city council in November 2008.

During the time the task force was meeting, the petition drive was working to get the necessary signatures. Organizers had six months to collect signatures and by late February 2009, they had more than 4,100 on the petition.

On March 10, 2009, the city formally received the petitions, but also decided to seek a declaratory judgment from Dodge County District Court Judge John Samson to see if the city could legally proceed with the proposed ordinance.

Samson heard the case on April 16, 2009. He ruled the following Monday that the issue should be placed on the ballot during a special election.

While it appeared a vote on the issue would come in 2009, city council members decided to appeal the decision. It was a 5-1 vote with Bolton voting against the appeal.

"We asked for a declaratory judgment and got that," Bolton said. "Some people may not understand it, but that's what we got."

Ultimately, the city would ask that the appeal be heard by the Nebraska Supreme Court, which did take the case. Arguments were held Jan. 7 and then the waiting began.

The court did not issue a ruling until April 23 when it upheld Samson's ruling.

That set the stage for the upcoming election.

Initially, council members selected June 22, a Tuesday, as the date of the special election. But there were scheduling conflicts with personnel at the Dodge County Clerk's Office, which conducts elections, and the date was changed to June 21.

Now, after almost two years of debate, Fremont residents will decide the fate of the proposed ordinance.


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