In the late days of a tense campaign, Mayor Jim Suttle's administration moved to dismiss his opponent's spouse from a consultant role with the Omaha Fire Department.
Dr. Joseph Stothert, who is married to Mayor-elect Jean Stothert, has served as medical director for the Fire Department's emergency medical service for 18 years.
Fire Chief Mike McDonnell had discussed the decision with city attorneys and Fire Department officials for some time. The discussions continued into election day, when Suttle approved the move.
McDonnell has sent a letter to Stothert stating that the physician has not worked closely with the department in the last several months and that the department would proceed in another direction to better serve its needs, city officials said.
“We're a no-nonsense administration,” Suttle said at his campaign party Tuesday night, shortly after election results came in. “We're taking what's in the best interests of the city and what's in the best interest for the safety and liability for our people, in this case, firefighters. We've got a lot of work to do.
“And we're going to have a first-class team to get the job done, and is committed to getting the job done.”
Word of the dismissal greeted Jean Stothert on Wednesday, as she prepares for the transition to the Mayor's Office.
In a statement issued late Wednesday morning, Dr. Stothert said he hadn't yet received notice of the fire chief's decision.
“I'm proud to have served as the Omaha Fire Department medical director since 1995, including the last four years as a volunteer,” he said. A University of Nebraska Medical Center physician has signed on with the city to fill Stothert's role, city legal officials said.
The move comes at a time when Jean Stothert's relationship with the Fire Department and its employee union has soured, largely because of tense negotiations over a new labor contract. The fire union campaigned against Stothert.
McDonnell, a former fire union president, said earlier this year that the latest labor contract, negotiated by a City Council committee led by Jean Stothert, created a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the department budget.
Stothert responded that the shortfall was “an issue of failed leadership and failed management” and said if McDonnell can't manage the budget, “we need to find someone who can.”
The fire chief is, however, among a small group of specially protected city directors who can be dismissed only for cause. City code refers to cause as anything that reflects discredit on the job “or is a direct hindrance to the effective performance of the city government functions. ...”
Such employees, according to city code, can be subject to discipline, including dismissal, for such reasons as criminal behavior, habitual use of alcohol, insubordination, incompetence or negligence.
Joseph Stothert, a UNMC trauma surgeon, is responsible for supervising the Fire Department's emergency medical operations and establishing its policies. Under his contract, he was expected to devote a minimum of 10 hours per week to his duties, in addition to attending several monthly meetings and providing any needed consultation. He also serves as trauma director for the State of Nebraska.
He was paid some $58,000 annually for the position until his wife was elected to the City Council in 2009. He then elected to serve as a volunteer, while keeping the rest of his contract intact.
The City Charter prohibits elected officials from having a financial interest, direct or indirect, in any city contract.
His contract with the city technically expired in 2011, but he has continued to serve in the role.
Joseph Stothert has been active in his wife's political campaigns and recently loaned $25,000 to her successful mayoral campaign.
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