A debate over what constitutes a “secret deal” has erupted in the Omaha mayoral race.
Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle has accused his Republican opponent, Jean Stothert, of presiding over a labor contract that, he says, secretly gave an additional three firefighters the right to retire under an old contract that allowed them to spike their pension.
Stothert's camp called Suttle's allegation “ridiculous,” saying there was no attempt to hide anything from the public.
“It's obvious political conjecture or spin on their part,” said Ryan Horn, Stothert's campaign manager.
Gary DiSilvestro, Suttle's chief political consultant, stood by the charge, saying it was not made public until recently. The three firefighters' early retirement is expected to cost the city's pension fund an additional $1.1 million.
Stothert is trying to unseat Suttle in the May 14 election. The firefighters' contract has been a key issue throughout the race.
The City Council stripped Suttle of his role as the city's chief negotiator with the firefighters after rejecting a Suttle-negotiated contract that, the council said, was too generous to firefighters.
A team of council members, led by Stothert, took over negotiations and reached a new agreement. The new contract won City Council approval.
Suttle, who did sign the contract, has nonetheless repeatedly taken issue with it. He made the charge about the “secret deal” in his most recent television advertisement.
At the heart of the debate is a provision that was in both the Suttle and Stothert contracts. These provisions gave eligible firefighters a 90-day window to retire early under the old contract, allowing them to enhance their pension through overtime.
However, a question arose with the Stothert contract over whether firefighters who became eligible during the 90-day window would be allowed to retire under the old contract. It was a key question because 13 firefighters would reach their 20-year mark during the look-back period, making them eligible for bigger pensions.
Mark McQueen, the city's lead labor negotiator, said it was the negotiating team's intent to allow firefighters to become eligible during the 90-day period. Deputy City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch notified the city's human resources department about McQueen's interpretation in a legal memo.
Suttle's camp says that intent was not made public at the time and, therefore, it was a “secret deal.”
Ryan Horn, Stothert's campaign manager, called that “nonsense,” saying the city's deputy city attorney, pension board and human resources department were aware of McQueen's interpretation.
“The charge from Jim Suttle's camp is baseless,” Horn said.
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