Finally, something all five candidates for Omaha mayor can agree on.
Neighborhoods. They're the heart and soul of the city, the contenders told a packed crowd Thursday at Field Club of Omaha.
In the least-divisive of recent mayoral forums, candidates echoed each other again and again, telling midtown residents that neighborhoods should be supported with financial and organizational help from city government, protected from crime and potholes and applauded for their efforts to attract and support businesses.
The candidates offered varying plans as they answered a series of back-to-basics questions on handling code violations, resolving conflicts and their own connections with Omaha neighborhoods.
But they did little of the squabbling that's captured attention in the last days of the primary campaign.
For much of the evening, the most heated debate was happening online, as the Twitter accounts for the campaigns of City Councilwoman Jean Stothert and attorney Dan Welch shot messages back and forth on labor contracts — a topic that was barely mentioned in the live event sponsored by the Midtown Neighborhood Alliance.
Candidates offered the audience a closer look at how they would restore decaying sections of the city and keep momentum going in revitalized areas.
State Sen. Brad Ashford said Omaha should form a land bank that could buy and help restore vacant and dilapidated properties, and reach out to residents with a traveling truck that could offer permitting and other city services.
He urged broad redevelopment plans, like the efforts to rebuild the Old Market and the riverfront.
“We transformed the city of Omaha, made us a river city again,” he said. “So now any dream the citizens of Omaha can come up with is possible. Government's role is to give us the tools.”
Mayor Jim Suttle told the crowd he believes all city services should be distributed evenly across the city. He said he's spent his time in office finding ways to offer those services more efficiently, citing the Parks Department as an example.
“We now are doing more mowing, more tree trimming, more coordination and exchanges of equipment and mowers between public works and parks, getting more done with 70 fewer people,” he said. “That's the kind of thing we're looking for.”
Welch said he'd want to see grant money available for neighborhoods dedicated to forming new neighborhood associations.
He said connecting with residents using new technology is important, but he would maintain traditional lines of communication.
“A lot of people over the age of 50 don't want to get a computer, didn't grow up with that,” he said. “I'm going to maintain the mayor's hot line.”
Businessman Dave Nabity said he'd push for overhauls in city planning to make it easier for businesses to move to Omaha neighborhoods and would turn some responsibilities over to private neighborhood groups.
“What I envision having is a management team in City Hall that's coordinating well with all the neighborhood associations, so we serve as a resource for all those neighborhood associations as they're working through those different issues,” he said.
Stothert, however, fired back at Nabity's business-centered focus.
She said building bridges with neighborhoods requires someone with practice leading as part of a group, nodding to her service on the Millard school board.
“What you really learn, that you don't learn just in business, is if you're going to get something done as a board, you learn you're going to have to work together,” she said.
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