Primary elections next week will narrow the field in races for the Omaha City Council.
That new City Council will be dealing with difficult issues that matter to the city's future. These include the best way to address crime and gun violence, the city's tax climate, pensions for police officers and firefighters, a sewer overhaul that will cost at least $2 billion and the need to both grow and attract new jobs.
There are just two candidates in each of four districts — 1, 3, 5 and 6 — and all of them will advance to the May general election. In the remaining three districts, six candidates stand out: Ben Gray and Bruce Hunter in District 2; Garry Gernandt and Virgil J. Patlan Sr. in District 4, and Tom Mulligan and Aimee Melton in District 7.
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District 2: Gray, who is serving his first term on the City Council, has been a thoughtful, effective representative for District 2 while also demonstrating the ability to approach issues from a citywide perspective. While we don't always agree with his positions, city governance benefits from Gray's consistently serious-minded, responsible approach.
The longtime Omahan has been deeply involved in trying to reduce crime and gun violence in north Omaha and across the city, with both a focus on summer employment programs and the work of Impact One Community Connection, a group he helped create. Economic development, too, has been high on his agenda. Gray also showed leadership in winning council approval of protections against discrimination for gay and transgender residents.
It was troubling to learn that the Internal Revenue Service said Gray and his wife, the former Omaha school board president, owed some $60,000 in unpaid taxes from 1996 to 2011. Gray said they have been repaying the debt and plan to pay it off by 2016.
Hunter, an attorney, grew up in north Omaha before leaving for college and law school. He returned home, started a law practice and says he was motivated to run to help shape the kind of city his young daughter will grow up in.
He talks thoughtfully about moving past historic barriers, including racial and geographic polarization, and recruiting new businesses and jobs to the area: “I see a need for the business, civic, faith-based, nonprofit and philanthropic communities to work together.”
Hunter says jobs and education are part of the answers to the complex problems of crime. In looking at the taxes that have been implemented or increased over the past several years, he says it is time to examine their impact on job creation.
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District 4: Gernandt has served South Omaha residents on the council since 2001. He has four decades of public service to his credit, including the Marine Corps and 31 years as an Omaha police officer.
Currently the council's vice president, Gernandt outlines three sensible objectives in his vision for Omaha: maintaining a sound economic structure to draw in jobs, making sure neighborhoods are safe and striving to maintain a sound budget.
Patlan, too, is a retired police officer, with 25 years of service. The U.S. Army veteran had experience in the gang unit while on the police force. He says it's important for South Omaha to hire a gang specialist, as north Omaha has, who will know the issues of the area and have the funding and resources available to do the job.
Regarding his vision for Omaha, Patlan says the recent tax increases have been harmful to small businesses and that the emphasis should be on helping to create business.
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District 7: Mulligan was appointed in 2010 to fill a vacancy after council member Chuck Sigerson stepped down for health reasons. Mulligan spent 39 years with Union Pacific Railroad and at his retirement was director of the company's passenger train operations. Selected by his colleagues as City Council president in 2011, Mulligan speaks knowledgeably and confidently about a wide range of issues confronting city government.
He stresses a willingness to work with others to find agreement on tackling issues and says the City Council has acted correctly by providing new police cruisers and in-car cameras, and by adopting a new utility rate structure to provide a more equitable way to handle sewer separation costs.
Melton is a managing partner in an Omaha law firm and a former deputy Douglas County attorney. Melton says her perspective and skill set have been helped by her experience in mediating disagreements and in working with at-risk youth and with local nonprofits that help disadvantaged young people.
Melton voices strong opposition to tax increases passed in recent years. The key to addressing the city's budget needs is getting spending under control, she says. She expresses concern that regulations and procedures by the city Planning Department are hindering economic development projects.
In next Tuesday's City Council primary, these candidates deserve to advance: Ben Gray and Bruce Hunter in District 2; Garry Gernandt and Virgil J. Patlan Sr. in District 4, and Tom Mulligan and Aimee Melton in District 7.