Six years after Omaha absorbed Elkhorn, the annexation looms over a race between two City Council candidates with a debate over improving basic city services in the community.
Phil Klein, Elkhorn's former mayor, wants to return those services to a level he says his community's residents are accustomed to.
Franklin Thompson, the incumbent in District 6, acknowledges that city services have changed in Elkhorn. But while Klein puts priority on improving Elkhorn, Thompson cites an ability to help lead the entire city of Omaha.
The former city of Elkhorn is split between council Districts 5 and 6. But former Elkhorn residents represent less than 10 percent of the district that Thompson and Klein want to serve.
Thompson has had low popularity in Elkhorn. In 2009, Thompson lost just four precincts overall in his re-election bid — and all four were in Elkhorn.
Yes, Thompson said, part of Elkhorn has a distaste for big-city governance.
“The smaller unit they had gave them a different form of what those services looked like — a little bit more of a small-townish feel,” Thompson said. “When the big machine took over, those basic services changed.”
Klein wants better-plowed streets and a more visible police presence in Elkhorn.
District 6 is a place where neighborhood concerns resonate.
That's especially true, Klein said, after Elkhorn's local government was “unceremoniously removed” by annexation.
Klein, who was a four-term mayor, said he stayed out of politics for a number of years “to let the dust settle.”
“After the past couple of years of seeing our services where they are and being encouraged by neighbors and former public servants, I elected to (run),” he said.
Klein was leading the suburb in 2005 when it tried to annex enough neighborhoods to reach 10,000 people and avoid Omaha annexation forever. But Omaha annexed Elkhorn first, and Thompson was among the City Council members who voted in favor.
Thompson, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who dabbles in songwriting, says his first district-based priority is to “fight for neighborhood rights.” In a broader sense, he sees a need for his abilities as a mediator and thinker.
“From the very beginning, I've been a councilman that tried to split my duties for just the district, and the whole city,” Thompson said.
“Now that I'm a 12-year veteran, I really see the need for that.”
So you'll hear Thompson talk tax policy and Crossroads redevelopment and the massive sewer overhaul. You'll watch him extend occasionally tedious council hearings, in an effort to ensure residents get full opportunity to have their say. You'll see him in north Omaha at heated meetings on police-community relations.
“How can I be one of the senior members on the council and ignore that? It would be very irresponsible,” he said.
“So even though my district is not pushing me to handle that, the city needs me because of the fact I've been around for a long time and I've seen the different stages of this debate.”
Klein has kept a lower profile in the race by eschewing appearances at community candidate forums and Republican Party events. “I don't schmooze,” he said.
Klein's background is in computers. After being laid off and holding a fill-in job, he earned a commercial driver's license and now works in the roads department for the County Engineer's Office. He's a proud owner of one dog, two Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a few firearms (he's a longtime member of the National Rifle Association).
Klein supports the tobacco tax to help fund a planned cancer center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He's hesitant about fully merging city and county government. He supports a city anti-discrimination ordinance to protect gay and transgender employees, which Thompson voted against.
Klein's wants to return his community to what he describes as a more idyllic time — curb-to-curb salt and sand on snowy days, familiar faces inside police cruisers.
“They need to know us and get to see what's going on,” Klein said of Omaha police officers. “We typically see 'em out on Maple Street running radar, which is fine, that's part of their job too. But we'd sure like to see a police officer occasionally.”
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402-444-1068, email@example.com, twitter.com/PerezJr
Occupation: Roads department at Douglas County Engineer's Office
Public offices held: Four-term mayor of Elkhorn
Education: Attended Metropolitan Community College and Harper College (Ill.)
Occupation: Professor, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Public offices held: Omaha City Council, 2001-present
Education: Ph.D. in educational administration from UNO
Family: Married, four children
Q&A with the candidates
The World-Herald surveyed candidates for the Omaha City Council about their views on several issues facing their council districts. For other coverage of this and other City Council races, click here.
What is the single biggest challenge facing District 6?
Klein: As I campaign in the neighborhoods of District 6, I meet voters who want to be more connected to their representative on the City Council, so we have a sense of improvements to come in police protection, our streets and parks, so we know that our representative is listening on topics like economic development, controlling government spending and taxes. As the former mayor of Elkhorn, I know how to keep in touch with taxpayers, respond to their concerns and provide a strong voice for them at City Hall. That's the challenge I'm stepping forward to meet.
Thompson: It is a dead-heat tie between fighting for the rights of neighborhoods and the need for improved delivery of basic services. I have had a very successful 12-year run when it comes to fighting for the rights of neighborhoods. Yes, we often run up against city planning rules and regulations, and we don't always get everything we want. But I am known throughout my district as the guy who will fight for and get concessions for the small person. While the delivery of basic services is no worse in District 6 than it is in the rest of the city, the citizens of District 6, nonetheless, place a higher priority on that item compared to other districts.
What in District 6 holds the biggest potential to drive economic growth and development?
Klein: Many of our neighborhoods are fully developed and our neighborhood business districts are thriving. However, there is much potential for well-planned growth in our western neighborhoods. Recognizing this, the residents need a representative with a strong voice, someone who is experienced at bringing positive economic development to our community. I've gained that experience in Elkhorn, which is another area where we can grow our economy with ongoing efforts in reviving the business district.
Thompson: My district is very popular for business and housing development. Examples: The new Sterling Ridge development, the Crossroads area redevelopment plan, TD Ameritrade headquarters and development in Old Mill, the downtown Elkhorn revitalization, Omaha Track Material, the proposed Gateway development located at 192nd and north of Dodge and a new NP Dodge branch at 206th and Cumberland Drive.
What are three of your policy goals for your term? Please be specific.
Klein: First, continue reducing crime and efficiently enhance police protection, specifically including the plans for a fifth police precinct to serve a growing number of residents and businesses in western neighborhoods. We can also resolve the way the City Council has failed to welcome residents of Elkhorn fully into the Omaha community by splitting Elkhorn between two districts and diluting the voice of neighborhoods. My experience as a mayor elected to four terms will be valuable for another goal to ensure services are delivered to all the neighborhoods of District 6 and that we perform this mission as efficiently as possible.
Thompson: For the whole city: Promote fiscal responsibility regarding taxes, greater government efficiency, greater transparency, balancing the budget, and union contract negotiations. Work with the mayor and the Greater Omaha Chamber on gaining greater clarity, vision and best practices regarding how to address the federal mandate for combined sewer separation. Addressing the rise of violence, as well as the strained relationship between the community and police. For my district: Continue to fight for neighborhood rights, push for improved delivery of basic services, work closely with young people and the schools.