BY JOHN FERAK AND CINDY GONZALEZ
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITERS
Mayor receives standing ovation: Click here to watch the video
FREMONT, Neb. - Five-term Mayor Donald "Skip" Edwards says illegal immigration is a huge problem, but he doesn't think his small city is the place to try to solve an issue facing the entire country.
Fremont police watched over the crowd during the hearing.
At about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, Edwards cast the pivotal vote to break a 4-4 Fremont City Council tie and defeat a proposed city ordinance aimed at driving away illegal immigrants by punishing landlords and businesses who rented to and hired them.
"Casting the vote was very emotional for me. I sincerely mean that we do have a problem in this country with illegal immigration," Edwards, 69, said today.
The vote followed a hearing that drew more than 1,000 people to the Fremont High School auditorium, where the council heard impassioned testimony for and against the proposal.
Edwards said that he strongly opposed illegal immigration and that the vote had weighed heavily on him. But he made his decision after consulting with several law firms.
"Trying to enforce this type of ordinance would be very expensive, hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly millions," he said. "I am of the opinion this is a federal law. I vote no."
Boos from an audience that shrank as the night wore on were drowned out by a standing ovation cheering Edwards' vote.
When the tense meeting ended, the slender, gray-haired Edwards sat for several minutes in a classroom, recuperating from the emotionally charged session that had lasted nearly five hours.
Some City Council members and other city officials offered him words of comfort, encouragement and congratulations.
Afterward, the mayor and council members received police escorts to their cars. Edwards said today that he isn't fearful for his safety because of the vote.
Fremont, a town of about 25,000 northwest of Omaha, has seen its Latino population increase in recent years due largely to the presence of meatpacking jobs. The Latino population in the 4,600-student Fremont Public Schools has been estimated at 15 percent.
Landlords leasing to illegal immigrants would have faced a $100 fine. Under special licensing requirements - which would have applied to every renter regardless of heritage - an occupant would have had to buy a $5 occupancy license, issued only after local police had verified immigration status.
The crowd at Tuesday night's council meeting came from Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus and elsewhere in Nebraska to speak on what would be the state's first city-driven proposal to force out illegal immigrants.
The proposal had elevated tensions, which was reflected by a heavy law enforcement presence - some 50 officers from the Fremont and Omaha Police Departments, the Nebraska State Patrol and the Dodge County Sheriff's Office - and strict procedures.
The auditorium was swept by a bomb-sniffing dog before the public filed in two lines past portable and hand-held metal detectors.
Those testifying lined up at two separate microphones according to their position on the issue and took turns speaking for and against, with comments limited to three minutes each.
More than a dozen officers were scattered throughout the auditorium and, at times, scolded people if they applauded or otherwise tried to react to a speaker.
Except for an elderly man wearing a veterans cap - who was kicked out by police after he yelled, "Bring it on!" - the hearing was generally orderly.
People began arriving before 5 p.m., and the last of 75 speakers finished about 11 p.m.
Councilman Gary Bolton, who voted against the ordinance, said he, too, was frustrated with the failure of federal officials to enforce immigration laws. But he said the ordinance would be costly to the city.
Councilman Scott Getzschman said many of his constituents asked to put an end to the proposal and the heightened tensions it had raised in Fremont.
The debate also brought e-mails, letters and talk show requests from across the country.
Also voting against the ordinance were council members John Anderson and Jon Gilfry.
Voting in favor, without comment, were Charlie Janssen, Mary Marsh and Scott Schaller. Bob Warner, who proposed the ordinance, said he believed the ordinance could be enforced.
During the hearing, supporters of the ordinance cited crime, disease and abuse of public assistance as reasons that the City Council should pass the ordinance.
"Yes, I'm frustrated," said Susan Smith of Fremont, contending that illegal immigrants are the main cause of disease coming into the United States.
Robert Hollister of Omaha wore a T-shirt that said, "Illegal aliens harm U.S. economy and ecology," and his wife wore one that said, 'Where's the fence?"
"The federal government's dropped the ball," Robert Hollister told the council. "The Unicameral's dropped the ball."
John Wiegert, a Fremont resident who teaches in Yutan, said the ordinance was needed to alleviate a burden on schools and emergency rooms.
"Racism has nothing to do with this ordinance," Wiegert said. "This ordinance is about what is legal and what is illegal. If the federal government is not going to watch out for us, then we need to watch out for ourselves."
Others questioned why their city should pay to defend an ordinance that attorneys have told the council is unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Several said that they were embarrassed by the proposal and that it made Fremont look intolerant.
"We do not feel this ordinance will benefit Fremont in any way," said Christy Fiala, a Fremont native who said she represented a coalition of local churches, schools and social service agencies. "Rather it will negatively impact Fremont."
Severiano Franco of Lincoln said the council could distinguish itself by enacting the ordinance. "You'll be No. 1," he said, "You'll be the biggest bigoted, racist city in the state."
Stacey Escobedo of Fremont said she and her husband have spent $7,000 and seven years trying to remedy his immigration status. Her husband, who entered the United States on a legal visa that has since expired, has adopted her children.
"I'm very irritated," she said. "This ordinance is disgusting."
Before the mayor's tiebreaking vote, Fremont City Attorney Dean Skokan informed everyone that by law, Edwards could abstain from voting and effectively kill the ordinance, which required a majority vote to pass.
Edwards said that he had a sense heading into the meeting that council might deadlock.
"I didn't know absolutely for sure that it would wind up 4-to-4, but I knew in my mind there might be a chance. Yes, it was unusual, because our council usually has a pretty good consensus on issues . . . But you just get those gut feelings," he said today.
"It was a tough issue and a tough decision to make. But I always pray about it and try to look at the whole picture and how it will affect Fremont," he said.
Edwards, now in his 20th year as mayor, said he wasn't concerned about political fallout.
"I never pay attention to that," he said. "I love this community dearly, and that's I why I continue to do this job."
Getzschman said Edwards had showed true courage and leadership by casting a vote when he wasn't required to do so.
"He's a very grounded person, and Skip is one of the most dedicated civic leaders in Fremont. He literally eats, drinks and sleeps Fremont, Nebraska," the council member said. "He has a true passion for his job. He prayed, he soul-searched and made a decision that he felt in his own mind was in the best interest of Fremont."
• Vote on the ordinance
• Council member Bob Warner defends the measure
• Public input during the hearing
• Differing views outside the hearing