By the time voters reach the Metropolitan Utilities District at the bottom of Tuesday's ballot, many opt not to vote, and name recognition plays a significant role.
The utility has seen elected positions handed down from one generation to the next, and board members often stay for decades.
“It's easier to get elected to the State Legislature than MUD board,” said Ron Wanek, a candidate who has run several times.
This year, voters will decide whether to return to office a 12-year incumbent, retired police captain and former candidate for Omaha mayor, David Friend, and weigh another bid for a 30-year board member from a prominent family of Omaha Republicans, John S. McCollister.
Voters will consider seven more candidates. Among them: Jim Begley, who hopes to succeed his mother, Mary Kay Begley, who died while on the MUD board, and Mike McGowan, the man appointed to fill her seat.
The others: Kimara Z. Snipe and Megan Murphy, two 30-something women making their first runs at the board, and Wanek, Pat Vacanti and Todd Heyne, three men who have run before.
Friend and McCollister say the long tenures of MUD board members reflect satisfaction.
“If the general public is returning people to those positions ... my take is that the general public is happy with their performance,” Friend said.
McCollister said it is fair to question why he would seek a return to the board. He opted out of running for re-election in 2008 and set his sights, unsuccessfully, on the Nebraska Public Service Commission.
“I'd say during that 30-year span I was on the board, the result was effective leadership and continuity,” he said.
McGowan, the MUD board appointee, said he brings a lifetime of industry expertise from a career with Northern Natural Gas.
He said improving MUD's distressed financial position has been the focus of his two years on the board. Shortly after being named, he discovered MUD was out of compliance with its bond covenants and said he has worked with management to set MUD on a healthy course.
Begley, like his mother before him, has the endorsement of MUD, local and state employee unions.
He said the culture at MUD has changed and become antagonistic toward workers. He questioned the board's leadership, notably its decision to allow a member of the board to be hired as an MUD senior vice president.
“It's cronyism,” he said.
He volunteered that he was stopped in March for a first-offense driving while intoxicated.
“I deeply regret the mistake I made, and I am taking responsibility for my actions,” he said.
Several of the other candidates have had financial problems that resulted in suits by creditors, but most of the amounts were small. The candidates involved described family medical or marital problems that exacerbated their financial problems.
Vacanti, a former MUD employee who disagrees with the way the utility changed his job responsibilities, said he is frustrated with the utility's promotion practices. Merit needs to rule at MUD, he said.
“I do believe an insider like myself can improve the balance between the union, board members and management,” he said.
Both Snipe and Murphy say they know what it's like to struggle with bills.
Murphy said MUD needs to do a better job of notifying people before gas or water are disconnected. Costly re-connection fees compound financial problems.
“Better representation of the city's population is very important,” Murphy said.
This next batch of board members will preside over steep increases in MUD bills as a result of the City of Omaha's sewer modernization project and MUD's capital projects.
“I know people who will be affected,” Snipe said. “Maybe there are no other options. I don't know that yet.”
Heyne said the solutions to MUD's financial hurdles require big ideas, not nibbling around the edges of expenses. The utility, he said, should work with others to build a waste incinerator to generate revenue. Additionally, the utility should opt for a better water treatment method, he said.
Wanek, who has watched MUD closely for years, was critical of board members' tenures.
“Sitting on a board is not for life,” he said. “Can you get stale? Yes. Can you maybe run out of ideas? Possibly. I think a person should make their contributions and then move on.”
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