Three candidates for north Omaha's City Council seat used a popular soul food restaurant to make a public case for votes on Wednesday.
But the forum at Big Mama's Kitchen also served as a sounding board for district residents' concerns about north Omaha's poverty, crime and its relationship with law enforcement. Five candidates are running for the council seat.
Ben Gray, the incumbent, said his challenged council district is taking steps to “move the needle.”
“It is unmistakable that north Omaha is on the move,” Gray said. “We have started down the road of recovery with jobs, job creation.”
Timothy Ashford, an attorney who has pursued multiple civil cases against the city and Police Department, disputed that.
“Although the councilman thinks we're moving and we're on the move, I think we can do much better. North Omaha can do much better,” Ashford said.
Bruce Hunter, also an attorney, said the city still needed to decrease District 2's “misery index.”
“What I think I bring to the table is progressive leadership,” Hunter said. “Leadership that doesn't think in an old style of thinking.”
“We've got some heavy lifting to do,” he said.
Talk often turned to the community's sometimes fractured relationship with law enforcement and to reviving the city's police auditor.
Hunter said he would work to create a board of faith-based leaders, neighborhoods and other concerned citizens to “solve some of our most pressing issues with regard to police accountability.”
Gray said that he'd support an auditor but that it must be funded properly and protected in the city's charter, “so the money is guaranteed and the position is guaranteed.”
Ashford said he supported the position in order to help prevent police misconduct.
“We have to get the money to do that because it would send a message to citizens in north Omaha: 'You have an avenue, an easy avenue, that somebody will listen to you about your concerns about police misconduct,'” he said.
Candidates often tied education to efforts to reduce crime and poverty rates.
“In essence, when people have a hole in their heart, they tend to commit crimes,” Hunter said. “These kind of people need to be understood. They need to be brought back into our fold as a community.”
Gray pointed to the work of Impact One Community Connection, a group he helped create, and city summer employment programs as related crime prevention efforts.
“We know what works. We don't need to reinvent the wheel,” Gray said.
Ashford said the council needed to approach Omaha Public Schools officials “with an olive branch” to boost high school graduation rates.
“African-American males must be graduating, and African-American females,” he said. “That lowers the crime rate. That lowers the unemployment rate.”
Two District 2 candidates — retired Omaha police officer Tariq Al-Amin and former deputy county election commissioner Dennis J. Womack — did not appear at Wednesday's forum. The top two finishers in the April 2 primary advance to the May general election.
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