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2011: Year in Review: See our list of the biggest news, sports and entertainment of 2011.
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Less than a year ago, Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle came within 2,310 votes of being thrown out of office.
Suttle's narrow escape in the Jan. 25 recall election was one of the top stories of the year, capping a period of controversy and criticism that began when he was sworn in back in June 2009.
From a pricey SUV lease to several rounds of tax increases, Suttle's first 19 months were so rocky that many questioned whether he would make it to his 20-month anniversary.
But he did.
Now the mayor who barely hung onto his job doesn't rule out a re-election bid in 2013. He defends his policy decisions, including the tax increases, and talks confidently about his goals and plans for the city.
"It made my resolve stronger," Suttle said of the recall attempt. "I like my job. I like what I'm doing."
While Suttle still smarts over the recall, some think his opponents might have done him a big favor by trying — and failing — to oust him.
Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor, said the recall effort allowed Suttle to hit the reset button on his mayorship. By forcing a debate and a decision about Suttle's job performance, he said, recall leaders helped the mayor move beyond the unpopular actions and the public criticism that had dogged the first part of his term.
"It's old news at this point," said Landow, who was chief of staff to Suttle's predecessor, Mayor Mike Fahey. "They took their best shot, based on all those issues, and they were unable to knock him out of office. The recall made him much stronger."
Even the mayor's critics acknowledge that the anti-Suttle movement has lost its fervor.
"We're definitely past it," said Jeremy Aspen, who led the recall effort. "It was a lot of media and focus on that issue. When it was done, everyone was, 'Whew. We're moving on.' "
Opponents weren't in such an accommodating mood a year ago.
The recall effort drew support from Omahans of both parties who were dismayed by two years of city tax increases, including property tax, a higher wheel tax and a new 2.5 percent tax on restaurant and bar tabs. Restaurant owners and landlords played a key role in organizing the recall, and substantial funding came from a handful of business owners who took issue with the city's labor contracts with the police and firefighters unions.
Suttle contends that talk of a recall began immediately after his election in 2009, suggesting that he would have been targeted for removal no matter what he did.
But the mayor didn't do himself any favors. One of his administration's first acts was to sign a lease agreement for a hybrid Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle with an initial 24 percent interest rate, and he followed that by hiring several new department heads at salaries well above their predecessors'.
The SUV lease later was rewritten, and eventually the dealer simply donated the Durango's use for the remainder of Suttle's term. As for the higher salaries, Suttle said they were needed to attract top managers and were offset by staff cuts elsewhere.
Still, Suttle's early actions set the wrong tone at a time when the mayor was proposing tax increases to deal with major budget shortfalls. And his driven approach to solving problems, influenced by his training as an engineer, sometimes came off as arrogant.
"He was clearly unpopular," Landow said. "His approval ratings were very low, and he was ripe for defeat."
The recall wound up costing the City of Omaha more than $350,000 in election costs. Douglas County spent an additional $34,000 to verify signatures on the recall petitions.
Suttle opponents turned in more than 37,000 signatures collected by volunteer and paid circulators, although only 28,720 signatures were ruled valid by Douglas County election officials.
While that was still enough to force the recall election, the silver lining for Suttle was that many of the petition signers — particularly those solicited by paid circulators in parking lots and other locations — had not voted regularly in past elections. A World-Herald analysis after the election showed that a large percentage of infrequent voters who signed petitions ended up being no-shows at the polls.
Meanwhile, voters in key Republican strongholds rejected the recall against the Democratic mayor, even though they had favored Suttle's opponent in 2009. Some of those GOP voters said they were not fond of Suttle but disagreed with recalling him from office.
Aspen agreed that some conservative Omahans were uncomfortable with the recall method as a way to fight policy decisions. Such reluctance won't be an issue in the 2013 mayoral election, he said, and he hopes the recall experience will generate high turnout and result in a new city leader.
Suttle said he has learned from his near defeat and has made some changes. Increasingly, for example, his department heads take the lead in talking about administration policies, which helps keep Suttle out of the fray in run-of-the-mill disputes.
Suttle's staff also has been more proactive in talking about city initiatives. In the past, he said, his administration often found itself on the defensive, responding to critics rather than promoting its efforts.
Since the recall attempt, Suttle has reached out to some of his opponents. Aspen said he appreciates the mayor's efforts "to let bygones be bygones."
"He's nice enough to everybody," Aspen said.
Still, he said, Suttle hasn't shown much willingness to change policies that his critics targeted in the recall. Aspen said he and others continue to disagree with the tax increases, although it's clear that the additional revenue did help balance the city's budget.
"I don't actually believe it to be beneficial," Aspen said. "Things are better financially, but that burden was borne by the restaurateurs, unfairly."
Aspen noted that the Nebraska Supreme Court is weighing whether the restaurant tax is constitutional. If the court's decision goes against Omaha, that revenue will be lost and the city's budget woes will return.
Suttle would not say whether he will seek re-election.
But he's more than willing to defend his administration's tax increases as needed to fund city services and strengthen the city's fiscal position, including maintaining Omaha's top AAA bond rating.
"We put the financial house in order, in the black," he said. "What a turnaround!"
Suttle said he "stayed on course" despite criticism and focused on improving the city's operations. Omaha residents have been able to see their tax dollars used effectively to resurface streets, mow parks and put police on the streets, he said.
"The system works better because we changed the processes," he said. "That's what I'm good at."
Omahans want him to move forward on priorities such as creating jobs and seeking federal funding to help pay for the city's $1.7 billion sewer improvement project, Suttle said. They're not interested in past squabbles and controversies from the recall period, he said.
Landow said it's too soon to know what will happen in 2013 if Suttle runs again.
But he said Suttle would be more formidable than he might have seemed during the recall battle. After the mayor beat the recall, Landow said, some Omahans probably gained new respect for him.
"It's almost being in awe of him for surviving," Landow said. "You write him off for dead and wake up the next morning and realize he's not dead. You say, 'Holy smokes, he's still breathing.'"
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