Mayor-elect Jean Stothert doesn't have much time to catch her breath after last week's decisive victory.
Stothert must work to assemble a Cabinet as her June 10 inauguration approaches. She must decide how bold to be with the city's 2014 budget. She must reach out to the rest of city government and local interest groups.
Stothert declined an interview request as she begins the transition process. But her campaign statements provide some insight into the to-do list for someone who describes herself as a hands-on leader. Local political observers and two former mayors say Omaha's first woman mayor must make her early decisions carefully.
“She just needs to stick to her guns,” former Mayor Hal Daub said. “She needs to keep her commitments that she made during the campaign. She just needs to keep doing what she has been doing.
“And the next month is pretty critical to getting off to a good start,” he said.
Good beginnings are crucial to how a mayoral administration is perceived. Mayor Jim Suttle's early blunders — including a pricey car lease and increased salaries for department heads — haunted his re-election bid.
These will be among Stothert's first tests:
Appointing a staff
Stothert has said she likes the current public works director, Bob Stubbe, but says the Planning Department needs new leadership.
Two other posts — the city's finance and parks directors — are held by interim officials and will need permanent hires. Her choice as finance director will be a vital hire, because that person will carry out Stothert's fiscal vision.
Stothert seems supportive of new Police Chief Todd Schmaderer but has had public disputes with Fire Chief Mike McDonnell. Both men are part of a small group of city directors who can be fired only with cause.
The new mayor must strike a careful balance as she selects officials to fill key positions, said Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“There's always a little bit of pressure to do it quickly,” Adkins said. “But at the same time, you don't want to be rash, or you don't want to appear as though you're being rash.”
Paul Landow, chief of staff to then-Mayor Mike Fahey, said filling his old post ranks as one of Stothert's most important priorities.
“The chief of staff has to be there all day, every day,” he said. “When you think about most of our departments — like parks, police, fire, public works — they're on the street 24/7. Bad things are just waiting to happen, and they do. The chief of staff has to be able to deal with them.”
Stothert will have to lean on those close to her as she reaches staffing decisions, former Mayor Mike Boyle said.
“She has to rely on friends that she trusts, then make her judgment call on who she wants in key positions at the beginning,” he said. “Just take things slow. She'll be just fine.”
Daub expects Stothert to build a collaborative relationship inside her Cabinet. Each department director, he said, is an essential hire.
“I don't view any particular Cabinet member or department director as more or less valuable,” he said. “I think the paramount duty of municipal government is public safety, but that basket is not just police and fire. You've got to really put everyone in there for a piece of the action.”
It's too early to tell how much money Stothert's directors will earn. Her published campaign platform, though, says “many department directors have been overpaid the last three years,” and she promised to cut director salaries along with the Mayor's Office budget.
Proposing a 2014 budget
The process to build next year's budget will come to a head as Stothert settles into office. She'll have only a few weeks after being sworn in to finalize a budget proposal to send to the City Council.
That provides a clear opportunity for Stothert to implement some of her long-stated goals to streamline city government by spending less and rolling back tax hikes implemented by Suttle. City budgets, she's said, reflect a mayor's priorities.
In addition to her promise to cut the Mayor's Office budget, Stothert promised to give up the mayor's use of a city-leased vehicle and to cut her salary by 10 percent. She's said she wants to implement performance audits on each city department to ensure government operations run as lean as possible.
“If we want to run leaner, we have got to make sure that every city department (has) the best director we can in place, we have performance standards in every department that we can evaluate all of our employees, and we've got to make sure they're running as efficiently as we possibly can,” she said during the campaign.
Overall, she has also set major goals of eliminating the city's lucrative restaurant tax and reducing property tax rates.
"Next year's budget is just in the final processes right now, but it's not too late for her to have a major impact on it,” Landow said. “I think the most important thing she can do right now is make major changes to that budget that reflect her political and social philosophy.”
Adkins said he expects marginal changes in the budget, but that there's always a chance Stothert will throw “some kind of big splash into it.”
“She certainly has a mandate,” Adkins said. “If you've got a mandate, you've got to talk about doing something quickly.”
That's because such a mandate won't exist in the following years of her first term, observers said.
“You have a very limited amount of time to make a major impact, because the longer you're there, the more entrenched you and your people become,” Landow said. “She needs to make a major impact on that budget to show that this is how she's going to govern.”
Stothert's victory speech and campaign appearances made it clear she expects to be a “mayor of all of Omaha.” She used her election night victory speech to also reach out to city police officers and firefighters, though she has a fractured relationship with their unions.
Observers said Stothert will find success by reinforcing relationships with voters and parts of city government, such as the council, as well as city employee unions.
“People say the campaign never stops, and they blame 24-hour news for a lot of that, but it's also the way you connect with voters,” Adkins said.
That also means reaching out to neighborhood associations across the city, as well as Omaha's young professional groups and the business community.
“When you're running a big organization, like a city with a half-million people, campaigning is part of governing,” Adkins said. “With this many people, you've got to maintain some connection with the voters.”
Not only voters, but city lawmakers as well.
“Her first overtures really have to be to members of the City Council,” Adkins said. “There's some things she can do by herself through executive action. But a lot of the things she's talking about, particularly in tax structure, you're not going to see without the City Council.”
Stothert's own experience on the council, Daub said, gives her a chance to build a good working relationship with council members.
“There's always what they call a 'honeymoon,' though,” Daub said. “So who knows. We'll just have to wait and see.”
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