With a little more than three months until the Omaha mayoral primary, the city’s new contract with its firefighters has emerged as the first major issue in the race for mayor.
Two candidates — Mayor Jim Suttle and City Councilwoman Jean Stothert — have been directly involved in the issue.
Last year Suttle negotiated a contract that was rejected by the City Council. The council took over negotiating authority and, led by Stothert, spent 14 months working on an agreement — which was passed last week.
Days after the council and Suttle signed off on the deal, the politics are fresh and accusations are flying.
Stothert has proclaimed that the deal is good for taxpayers. In his first comments on the contract last week, Suttle raised questions about how good the deal was.
Mayoral challengers David Nabity and Dan Welch have both pointed to the timing of the contract announcements, saying it’s evidence that Suttle and Stothert are trying to score campaign points.
Nabity said Stothert, one of the three council members who helped negotiate the contract, started to “sell” the contract to the public weeks before the document was released. Nabity, a businessman, said that meant there wasn’t time for others to check the council’s financial calculations and decisions about matters of staffing.
“Not only were those decisions glossed over, but it doesn’t appear anybody did the mathematics on them,” he said.
When the mayor handled labor matters, a version of the contract was made public as soon as both parties reached agreement. With the council in control, it released highlights of the contract before sharing the full document.
Former Mayor Hal Daub, who has endorsed Stothert, said releasing only the highlights of a deal allows for control of the message without providing fodder for critics. That’s an advantage of incumbency, he said.
“Good for her,” Daub said. “You don’t think the mayor would have been out there right away, if he had negotiated a contract, to make sure his point of view was out there before the attacks could start?”
Stothert did not return calls seeking comment. But she released a statement saying other candidates “are putting politics before the taxpayers.”
“I understand that some politicians want to score points in the race for mayor — but recent attacks on the fire contract show a willful disregard for the taxpayers,” Stothert said in the statement.
Welch, a former city councilman, argues that Suttle did the math on the contract, but didn’t warn the council about major budget implications until it was too late.
On Wednesday as he signed the contract, Suttle said the deal will create a $6 million hole in next year’s budget. It was the first time the mayor weighed in on the contract since the council’s proposal was made public.
The Mayor’s Office maintains that it released its input when it was certain that the numbers were accurate — which happened to come the day after the council approved the contract.
Council members did not ask for such an analysis during or after their negotiations, said Aida Amoura, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
She said Suttle didn’t get a copy of the contract until it was released to the public. And, she said, the mayor didn’t want to derail passage of a contract that would achieve pension reform, one of his main campaign promises.
Once the contract was passed, Amoura said, it was the mayor’s duty to tell the public about its impact on the city budget.
“I would feel really guilty sitting here knowing there was a cost attached to this and saying nothing,” she said.
Gary DiSilvestro, the mayor’s campaign consultant, said Suttle had long said that he wouldn’t get involved in any debates over the contract.
“His overriding concern was resolving the pension crisis and not continuing the debate any further on this,” he said.
Critics, however, say Suttle’s comments look like a political maneuver.
Welch said that he expects the contract to create a budget shortfall even greater than the mayor’s $6 million estimate, and that Suttle failed to “sound the alarm.”
“The mayor has the power to have the Finance Department weigh those figures,” Welch said, “and didn’t. Where was he before this contract was passed? He was nowhere to be found.”
Others say critics such as Welch and Nabity are trying to score points themselves.
“It’s point, counterpoint, and there’s spin and counterspin,” said Councilman Chris Jerram, who was part of the council team that negotiated the contract. “That’s unfortunately a part of the seedy side of politics, and I think that tunes out and turns off the electorate.”
Jerram said he believes that other candidates stayed away from public hearings on the issue because Stothert, as a council member, would have had control of the discussion.
Nabity said he provided his concerns to the council in writing rather than in person because he didn’t want to appear overtly political. Welch made calls to council members to share his views.
“It just seems so political when you make a public appearance when you’re running for mayor,” he said.
State Sen. Brad Ashford, the fifth candidate for mayor, has largely stayed out of the fire contract discussions. He said the contracts negotiated by both Suttle and the council helped improve the city’s position, but he believes that the conversation has gone on for too long.
The back-and-forth comparing the mayor’s contract to the council’s contract, he said, is “silly.”
“It’s time to start thinking about what the real problems in Omaha are, and they are not this,” he said.
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