City Hall's hubbub over Mayor Jim Suttle's health has swiftly turned into a fresh battle between his administration and the Omaha City Council over raises for a handful of top officials.
While Suttle was in a hospital Wednesday, his office issued a statement from the mayor saying council members “seized a political opportunity to distract the public” when they criticized pay increases that Suttle quietly issued to some officials at the beginning of the year.
That prompted some council members to fire back.
Councilman Franklin Thompson said he'll propose a resolution at next week's council meeting to admonish the mayor for the pay raises and encourage more budget transparency from the administration.
“It's more of a symbolic kind of thing, but I still believe it's important at this time,” Thompson said. “Irregardless of what (Suttle's) intent was, it's still not the way to run government.”
The latest developments in the pay raise controversy came after Suttle's doctor and spokeswoman revealed that the mayor had suffered a mild stroke last week while on an economic tour in Europe.
Suttle returned home Wednesday afternoon, after an overnight stay at Methodist Hospital for a battery of neurological and cardiovascular exams.
Before a final precautionary test on his heart, however, Suttle apologized “for the manner in which salary increases I gave members of my staff were announced.”
The statement issued by the Mayor's Office was his first direct comment on the controversy, which flared when he was in Europe touring sister cities in Lithuania, Germany and Ireland.
“There was no intent to deceive the taxpayers nor the City Council,” Suttle said. “In fact, we specifically included these salaries in the 2013 proposed budget in order to be transparent and to notify both taxpayers and the Council of the increased salaries.”
Council President Tom Mulligan said that was precisely the issue.
“He's trying to do this all after the fact,” Mulligan said of the mayor. “This is about timing and transparency.”
At Suttle's direction, a number of significant raises for top officials went into effect in January, unbeknownst to the public or the City Council. The mayor has the power to give raises to non-unionized employees so long as no department goes over budget.
Suttle approved the raises despite a pledge to freeze department heads' salaries throughout his term.
The mayor's proposed 2013 budget appeared to build in several administrative pay raises, including salary increases for his chief of staff, finance director and public works director. But those pay increases — which ranged from $9,000 to $25,000 — were implemented as the current fiscal year started in January. The current 2012 budget, which Suttle proposed and the council approved, doesn't include the higher salaries.
“These individuals did extraordinary work on behalf of the citizens of Omaha, and I rewarded them for their effort,” Suttle said. “I should have made a bigger deal out of these accomplishments at the time the raises were given, and I am sorry.”
Suttle said the council members' criticism is meant to divert attention from their inability to negotiate a fire union contract. Last year, the council stripped that authority from the mayor.
“They are hoping if they create a stir about $50,000 in salaries, the public won't notice the $4.2 million shortfall created by wage increases and an additional $15 million in potential pension shortfalls caused by their failure to negotiate a contract with firefighters,” Suttle said.
The mayor was resting and unavailable to speak publicly about the issue Wednesday, his office said.
Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who is a mayoral candidate, said the salary increases have nothing to do with the fire negotiations.
“Jim Suttle's protests today don't change any of the facts,” she said in her own statement. “After pledging to freeze salaries for top staff, he secretly awarded dramatic pay hikes beyond what was approved by the council.”
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