With a few hours to go before the end of her first day in office, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she'd already checked off several of the promises she made to voters during her campaign.
In a news conference outside City Hall, Stothert showed off her new car — a hybrid Ford Fusion she bought and is insuring herself and said she already made trims to the Mayor's Office staff.
Stothert said she cut the staff of the Mayor's Office from 13 to 11 positions, reducing costs by more than 10 percent.
“In the end I believe that the reorganization will lead to a leaner, and yet much more efficient Mayor's Office,” she said.
The mayor said she hopes the reductions set an example for the city's other 11 departments. She hopes to plug a projected $13.5 million hole in the 2013 budget entirely by making reductions in city spending.
“That will be one of my top priorities in my administration,” she said.
Stothert said her decision to use a personal car is part of that effort. She said she plans to drive herself to city events but may require additional security for some events.
“You'll have to evaluate each event independently. ... As long as there's somebody, even a staff person with me that can help me park, help me get where I need to go, that's fine with me,” Stothert said.
The mayor said she's still interviewing candidates for a handful of department head positions within the city.
“The city is running fine now since there is either a director or acting director in every department,” she said. “My goal isn't to beat the calendar on this. It's to get the best person.”
Earlier Tuesday, it felt a bit like the first day of class for Stothert's new administration.
“Except no one walked me to school,” said Marty Bilek, the new mayor's chief of staff.
Stothert and her team are abandoning the bare-walled transition office they've occupied recently for the more ornate and spacious Mayor's Office. Departing members of Suttle's team stripped the place of their personal belongings and nameplates by Monday evening.
By Tuesday morning, a letterboard outside the Mayor's Office was updated with the new administration's names.
The office itself buzzed with activity: One staffer carried in armfuls of supplies for a single-cup coffee brewer, someone else wheeled in a cart of giant potted plants, someone pushed out a cart of old computer equipment.
There's office space to assign and staff members to greet. A deputy chief of staff attended the City Council's regular Tuesday morning briefing to get acquainted. Stothert's schedule was packed with meetings, including a morning sit-down with Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and an afternoon press conference devoted to Stothert's campaign pledges about her early days in office.
“And then there's just routine stuff,” Bilek said. “Stuff you just take for granted if it's not there.”
Stuff like email and voice mail accounts and phone lines and computers and, well, you get the idea.
Bilek, a veteran law enforcement officer, said the first office priority is being able to communicate.
“Today will just be devoted to getting situated,” he said.
Jean Louise Stothert was sworn in Monday evening as the first woman ever to serve as Omaha's mayor — launching a term won on a platform of budget and tax reductions as the city faces a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. Tuesday may be spent getting situated, but the city's 51st mayor acknowledges there are big tasks to face.
“I made a lot of promises and a lot of pledges during the race, and I'm going to deliver on them,” Stothert said after Monday's inauguration ceremony. “I never tell people things that I'm going to do or want to accomplish if I don't think I can do them.”
Gov. Dave Heineman watched Stothert's inauguration alongside former Mayors Mike Boyle, Hal Daub and a packed house of public officials and well-wishers in City Hall's legislative chambers.
Stothert won a commanding victory over the incumbent, Suttle, last month, emerging from an expensive and heated partisan battle that partly revolved around issues she must now confront: city finances, labor union contracts and plans for Omaha's economic growth.
She promised to bring more accountability to the budget, to enact performance standards for city departments, to try to eliminate the lucrative restaurant tax and to reduce property taxes.
“I will work every day to earn your continued trust and your confidence,” Stothert told the crowd.
“Let me assure all of you that I will always put the people's business first, and I will deal with you openly and directly and honestly.”
Stothert said the city budget was projected to fall $13.5 million short by the end of the year.
“Now it's my responsibility, and by the end of the year, it will be balanced,” she said.
Stothert said the same goes for the 2014 budget, which she said currently exceeds projected revenues by at least $16 million.
“We have a lot of challenges and a lot of decisions to make, but again, we will get that done,” she said.
Stothert, a Republican, reached out to a City Council that still is controlled by Democrats. Pete Festersen, a potential mayoral challenger four years from now, was elected Monday to serve as the council's president on a 4-3 vote. Ben Gray will serve as vice president, after being elected by the same margin.
Heineman, meanwhile, said state government wants to strengthen its relationship with Nebraska's largest city.
“We need and we expect the Omaha metropolitan area to be a leader for economic growth,” he said. “We want to work with you to find common ground and common-sense solutions that are mutually beneficial to both of us.”
The work started today.
Stothert promised transparency, an open ear, straight answers and straight talk.
“Please hold me accountable to these principles in all of my work,” she said.