Omaha is about to elect its next mayor, but the executive branch needs help to maintain and improve the city’s economic and civic momentum.
All seven seats on the Omaha City Council are up for election, and each race offers a window into the unique challenge for each of the candidates: To serve on the City Council is to serve the neighborhoods the candidates call home as well as the wider city.
The issues facing Omaha, from the sewer separation project to fire and police pension costs to the need for street resurfacing and crime containment, go far beyond parochial concerns.
That is a key reason The World-Herald recommends Pete Festersen in District 1; Ben Gray in District 2; Chris Jerram in District 3; Garry Gernandt in District 4; Jeff Moore in District 5; Franklin Thompson in District 6; and Aimee Melton in District 7.
>> District 1: Pete Festersen. Festersen is a talented incumbent who applies his experience from working with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and former Mayor Mike Fahey. Festersen has focused on development projects in the city’s core and has played a strong role in helping keep the Dundee and Benson neighborhoods vibrant. He has worked hard behind the scenes on the redevelopment of Crossroads Mall, which is important citywide. And he sees where the city needs to do better, from streamlining the planning process to improving the pace and quality of street work.
>> District 2: Ben Gray. Gray is rightly focused on helping redevelop industrial tracts in north Omaha for future use as major employment centers. He is active in anti-crime, anti-gang and anti-poverty efforts that aim to pay dividends. He clearly sees the intersection of educational opportunities and future employability. Although Gray has been dealing with unpaid taxes in his private life, on city issues he is more interested in solutions than bombast, and he works for the good of more than his district only.
>> District 3: Chris Jerram. Jerram stumbled badly when photographed holding a sexist image of mayoral candidate Jean Stothert. He has apologized to voters and to Stothert, and his record and key roles on the council are strong. He works hard as a bridge between partisans on the council. He worked with Stothert on the committee that negotiated the new contract with Omaha’s firefighters, a contract that exacted concessions. He publicly credited her courage and stood up to Mayor Jim Suttle’s criticism. He doesn’t have to say he’s bipartisan. His work shows it.
>> District 4: Garry Gernandt. Gernandt benefits from his experience on the police department at a time when crime-fighting efforts top the concerns of many citizens. He says he wants to dispel inaccurate myths about South Omaha being unsafe. He points to positive changes, redevelopment along 24th Street and the vibrant, small-business ethic of new immigrant communities mixing with the last generations of immigrants, now settled. He works closely with residents of a diverse district.
>> District 5: Jeff Moore. Moore would be a newcomer to elected office, but he has demonstrated great energy in studying the issues that matter to the city, particularly the need to cut spending on labor contracts over time so that targeted investments can be made in tourism and business growth. He offered more specific ideas than some incumbents. He is intrigued by an effort in Des Moines to use fewer firefighters per truck than four in areas of the city that have newer buildings and fewer fires.
>> District 6: Franklin Thompson. Thompson serves a slice of central and west Omaha where many know his record of thoughtful, big-picture leadership. But he also serves parts of annexed Elkhorn that seem to want to hold him accountable for their loss of small-town government. Thompson rightly explains that Elkhorn is now part of a much bigger city. Thompson’s approach is the antithesis of small ball. He attends meetings outside his district to learn more about police-community relations. He focuses on the need for redevelopment near 72nd and Dodge Streets and on showing gang members other ways to live. He uses a skill too often missing in politics — judgment.
>> District 7: Aimee Melton. Melton is a focused, disciplined thinker who wants to represent northwest Omaha. The lawyer and former Douglas County prosecutor, who argues for cutting taxes the city has raised, has real-world experience addressing problems that concern the city and her fast-growing district, from the best way to combat drug use to helping children from at-risk families work toward better lives. Melton is independent-minded and realistic in what government can and should do in working with nonprofits to help address crime and youth unemployment. She wants the city planning department to work better with developers and will work hard to get it done.
In the elections on Tuesday, voters should send to City Hall a council that responds to neighborhood-level concerns with an understanding of the broader impact of each decision: Pete Festersen, District 1; Ben Gray, District 2; Chris Jerram, District 3; Garry Gernandt, District 4; Jeff Moore, District 5; Franklin Thompson, District 6; and Aimee Melton, District 7.