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Mayor Jim Suttle takes office and says that during his term, he will freeze salaries of his office staff and department heads. He later decides that some top managers — his chief of staff, the City of Omaha's finance director, the public works director — have done excellent jobs in dealing with tough fiscal times and a catastrophic flood.
He awards them pay raises. But he doesn't tell the City Council or the public about it. The already-awarded raises finally become public knowledge when the mayor proposes a budget for next year.
The mayor says there was no intent to deceive taxpayers, and he defends the aides' work: “These individuals did extraordinary work on behalf of the citizens of Omaha and I rewarded them for their effort.” As for the lack of transparency, “I should have made a bigger deal out of these accomplishments at the time the raises were given, and I am sorry.”
Still with us?
The raises were well-earned. The public should have been told.
The City Council then chides the mayor. “This wasn't illegal, but certainly ill-timed,” sums up Councilman Garry Gernandt. And the council approves a budget amendment seeking to lower the salaries, although it's not necessarily binding.
Now, Suttle's office says that three of four raises will be taken back — from chief of staff Steve Oltmans, Finance Director Pam Spaccarotella and Public Works Director Bob Stubbe. (A raise for the library director, approved by its board of trustees, apparently stays.)
Still with us?
The raises were well-earned. The public should have been told. The public wasn't told but eventually found out. And now the raises will be withdrawn.
Is this any way to run a railroad?
As we observed when the raises first came to light, city government is a big business that needs strong executive leadership. To attract good managers, salaries need to be competitive. It wasn't the roughly $70,000 in raises themselves that were the hardest to swallow. It was the casual secrecy with which they were given.
We have managers who've done good work. The city's AAA bond rating was protected in a tough economy, saving taxpayers' money. The Missouri River's flood waters were kept at bay.
We have top managers who got caught up in controversy over the secrecy surrounding the raises that the mayor said they deserved.
Now those managers will see the raises disappear.
There has to be a better way.
Acknowledge that when the public is kept in the dark, the public's trust is eroded. Then find a way for the mayor and City Council to guarantee that the public and the council are informed of future raises before they take effect.
That makes more sense than trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.