Mayoral forum packed; 5 hopefuls discuss crime, finances, labor contracts

A roomful of people listen to the five Omaha mayoral candidates at a forum held at the Westside Community Conference Center on Monday night.

It wasn't the dogfight some observers may have hoped for, but the first joint appearance of Omaha's best-known mayoral candidates didn't lack bite.

Monday's public forum sponsored by the Metro Omaha Property Owners Association was a key opportunity for five candidates to publicly outline their platforms and credentials in a rapidly accelerating race. An audience that packed a room at the Westside Community Conference Center seemed ready to listen.

Economic development, crime, finances and labor contracts with the public safety unions ranked among the evening's hottest topics.

Mayor Jim Suttle, a Democrat seeking a second term, positioned himself as a strong incumbent who salvaged dismal city finances and protected Omaha from a historic flood.

State Sen. Brad Ashford, an independent, touted his lawmaking experience and labored to appeal to centrist-minded voters.

Republican candidates worked to distinguish themselves from each other.

Councilwoman Jean Stothert promised to spurn campaign contributions from public employee unions and said her leadership on a fire union labor contract saved taxpayers millions. Former council President Dan Welch said he would bring civility to City Hall, with legal training that would facilitate fair labor contracts and limit government regulation.

Businessman Dave Nabity promised to scale back city government and to promote a business-friendly climate.

Some of the candidates' responses to specific issues:

Crime-fighting strategies:

Suttle said he would focus on a multifaceted approach that employs technology such as the city's ShotSpotter gunfire detection system, as well as community policing tactics and a fight against truancy.

“We need to fight the poverty,” Suttle added, “by creating the jobs in our economy so that all sectors in the city participate, and particularly the young people in our community.”

Welch said he agreed with many of the mayor's approaches, but also would assign officers to work in neighborhoods where they grew up. He would employ anti-gang initiatives used in cities such as Boston.

He said he would also recruit and employ volunteers, teachers and police officers “and assign them to gang people, leaders and gang members, and young people who are in jeopardy of becoming a gang member — and trying to talk them out of it.”

Ashford said serving as chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee allowed him to regularly deal with criminal justice issues. The city needs to adopt best-practice models from peer communities, he said, while placing new emphasis on mental health concerns and early gang intervention programs for juveniles.

Nabity said his strategy was to get civilians in the police department to coordinate with neighborhood residents “so they have a great intelligence network so that we can get there before the crimes occur.”

Stothert said she supports: stiffer criminal justice penalties for gang activity; collaboration with neighborhood religious leaders; school resource officer programs; and efforts to combat graffiti and junk in neighborhoods.

Public safety union contracts and finances:

Stothert, head of a council negotiating committee that reached a contract deal with the fire union, said the city's latest contract achieved significant pension and health care reform. “To say no to this contract is insanity, in my opinion,” she said.

Welch said he was one of the first to challenge benefits provided to the city's police and fire unions. “This is something that we have got to take head on,” Welch said. “This is toxic.

This is very dangerous to the City of Omaha. We need to turn this issue around, and I mean now.”

Ashford said citizens need to make their voices heard at the ballot box. The city also must determine the true depth of a projected shortfall in the police and fire pension fund.

“Yes, we are going to have to effect change and we have to do it through collective bargaining, that's the law,” he said. “To suggest that we can do it in a year or two, it's just not going to happen that way.”

Nabity said the pension fund is destined to fail, and he denounced the recently approved labor agreement with the fire union. “To pretend that we've got this fixed, and to carry on as if we have a great victory, I think is a big, big mistake, because we're setting up the whole system for failure,” he said.

Suttle simply replied that the pension fund crisis is solved. Retirement ages are raised and benefits were reduced, he said. Suttle said he would continue to focus on reforming city health care benefits.

Omaha's primary election is in April, followed by the general election in May. All Omaha city officials are elected on an officially nonpartisan basis.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1068,

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