The mayoral election kicked into gear on Monday night with a forum featuring five candidates -- Mayor Jim Suttle, Dan Welch, Jean Stothert, Dave Nabity and Senator Brad Ashford. The group fielded questions for two hours from a packed room at the OOIC on North 24th Street. Moderated by founding members of Citizens for Fairness, Justice and Action Network -- Cheryl Weston, Willie Hamilton and Reynaldo Cervantes -- along with Dr. Mario Sanchez, the evening highlighted concerns of both south and north Omaha residents.
Candidates began with a two-minute introduction. Senator Ashford (Independent) was executive director of the Omaha Housing Authority and is currently a state legislator. Dave Nabity (Republican), a lifelong small business owner, stressed his Benson roots and business experience. Jean Stothert (R), a former critical care nurse, has been in public office for 14 years, serving on the Millard school board and currently on City Council representing the Millard area. Mayor Suttle (Democrat) cited accomplishments from his first term such as working with the Empowerment Network, facilitating industrial development projects, fighting truancy and creating 41 neighborhood alliances. Attorney Dan Welch (D), a fourth generation Omahan, was previously on City Council.
The wide-ranging discussion included topics such as jobs and job training, blighted areas, lack of a police auditor, the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station, the sewer separation project, the Empowerment Network and local responses to immigration issues handled at the federal level that will create a pathway to citizenship for south Omaha immigrants. Most questions were posed to all the candidates.
On the question of blight, the incumbent Mayor had the advantage of being able to point to development projects already underway such as the new Wal-Mart in north Omaha, or in negotiation such as the Ames-Locust industrial park. The candidates were in agreement that poverty can only be addressed with job training. Stothert commented, “The government does not create jobs. Businesses create jobs.”
Only Nabity supported the reinstatement of a police auditor. The other candidates said that a citizen review board could perform the same function without costing a quarter of a million dollars a year. Welch suggested giving the review board subpoena power. Ashford commented, “The best police auditor is the mayor.” Suttle took some heat from Cervantes for relying on the Empowerment Network to the exclusion of other community groups as the “be-all and end-all for the relationship of community to police.”
All of the candidates expressed faith in OPPD’s ability to reopen and run Fort Calhoun Station safely, none favored its closing, with Nabity commenting that it “came through the flood without any major problems.” Asked if the city was prepared to be the first responder in event of a nuclear disaster, Mayor Suttle replied that the emergency preparedness plan had been modernized in the fall of 2009. Ashford praised the Mayor for his handling of the city’s response to the 2011 flood.
Dr. Sanchez pointed out that the Hispanic population in Omaha is 50,000. He asked each candidate what they would do for the Latino community. All of the candidates recognized the importance of diversity to the city’s vitality. Ashford credited immigration by Latinos with preventing population loss. There was unanimous support among the candidates for granting driver’s licenses to children of illegal immigrants raised in the U.S. to help them obtain employment and drive legally.
Two subjects were intensely personal to the community in north Omaha. One was the elimination of CTI-22, the north Omaha production facility that has been broadcasting public access television on Channel 22 for 25 years. Cervantes said, “You are all advocating the development of north Omaha, yet the actions of the CTAC board have been the opposite.” Only the Mayor and Stothert were aware of the issue, the other three candidates admitted they knew little about the diminution of public access television. Cervantes paid tribute to “the legacy of Dr. Reynolds who gave everything he could to facilitate a communications studio in north Omaha that survived in spite of the fact that he never got assistance form Cox or anyone else.” The Mayor stressed that his office has no jurisdiction over public access television -- it is totally controlled by the City Council.
Welch was asked, “Why were you in opposition to a small park in the black community being named after Ernie Chambers?” He responded that Chambers was too divisive in his comments about police and religion. Cheryl Weston responded, “Aren’t you supposed to be for the people? If the voters say, ‘This is what WE want,’ doesn’t your personal opinion go to the side?” Welch disagreed and reminded her that four members of the council voted against naming the park after Chambers.
The Citizens for Fairness, Justice and Action Network promises to hold a forum for other Mayoral candidates who were not part of Monday night’s forum. Check their website at www.citizens4fjanetwork.org