These stories are in-depth profiles of the four candidates running for the Omaha City Council’s District 4 seat. For coverage of other races check out The Reader’s 2021 city election hub.
“I want to be the voice of the people,” said Ben Cass, a 32-year-old software engineer running for office for the first time in April’s City Council primary. His priorities are to address structural issues in the city and ensure basic services — road maintenance, trash service and snow removal — are taken care of for District 4 constituents.
Cass is a longtime volunteer with the Omaha Jitterbugs and has also danced with The Moving Company at UNO. His love of the arts translates into his determination to support Omaha’s creative culture; Cass plans to attract and retain talent to improve the city’s economy. He’d also prioritize investing in technology and adapting to automation to make Omaha more modern and competitive.
The software engineer is known as a prodigy, having entered college at age 12 and earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Bellevue University at 17. He also began working with the Nebraska Democratic party at an early age, and was elected as the Congressional District Chair for NE-02 in 2018.
Omaha needs to improve employment opportunities for the middle class and expand access to affordable housing, he said, in order to stop brain drain. Another area where he sees inequity is snow removal.
“It takes a long time here in District 4, while in West Omaha everything is cleaned up fast,” Cass said. “How can you get people on the bus [when you have] a giant mountain of snow? We have to do something and make it work.”
Cass, who’s lived in rental housing since he was a teenager, has seen firsthand the inequities in tenant treatment. He said he’s committed to searching for solutions, including improving agreements made between tenants and landlords, and increasing the number of inspections to ensure rental units are in good condition. Cass also believes the city needs more senior housing.
Today, Cass said, many people who want to live in Omaha are forced to buy a car because of outdated and insufficient public transportation. He said the ORBT system can traverse 24th Street which he believes would facilitate north-south transportation.
“[Transportation is] a city-wide problem, especially when we talk about how we can get people back from a brain drain perspective,” Cass said.
On the subject of brain drain, Cass hopes to leverage his engineering and business experience to design plans that encourage companies to invest in Omaha, even remotely. He said he’s committed to improving the economy and making Omaha more attractive to young people beginning their careers.
The candidate also wants to create a climate action plan in Omaha, including developing renewable, clean and friendly energy systems, such as the installation of solar panels. For this project, he’d partner with OPPD.
Cass believes he’s “simple to work with,” a man who has solid ideas and is capable of collaborating with committed people, regardless of political affiliations.
“I really believe that hyper-partisanship,” Cass said, “is toxic to our society as a whole.”
During the pandemic, Sarah Smolen was frustrated with Omaha’s government. She tried to communicate with local authorities but wasn’t getting very far; in the end, Smolen did not feel that anyone was representing her. Smolen’s experience led her to understand the importance of City Council members being available to their constituents.
“I realized that our government is very inaccessible to people, and particularly our councillor. He didn’t seem really interested in doing his job,” Smolen said. “I decided right [then] if he didn’t do it, I’d do it myself.”
Smolen is an English teacher who has lived in South Omaha for over 17 years. This is the first time she has run for office. By serving on City Council, Smolen hopes to address the priorities of the community.
One of these priorities, Smolen said, is altering the City Council’s schedule so constituents can express their ideas.
“It can’t be just until 2 p.m.; a lot of people are working at that time or they’re in school,” Smolen said. “Those aren’t hours for people to participate. We can extend the schedule, even on weekends.”
She also believes the documents issued should be available in different languages so more people can understand what’s happening in local politics.
“There is a lot of cultural diversity in the community. We can include interpreters and sign language during sessions,” she said.
Smolen plans to improve access to housing and considers Omaha’s current situation a crisis. She believes it’s necessary to increase the number of affordable homes in the city and ensure the rights of tenants, including eliminating income-based discrimination.
“We’re pushing in the legislature with a bill for tenant rights,” Smolen said.
The candidate said that thanks to a financing program, she and her husband were able to get their first home with a very low interest mortgage. She sees housing prices rising in Omaha, where many cannot afford to purchase their own home, and considers supporting such programs among her top priorities.
Smolen also has concerns about the city’s public transportation. She’d like to expand the use of bike lanes and extend bus lines to connect those without cars to more parts of the city, in addition to widening sidewalks.
“They are too narrow, especially for someone in a wheelchair or a scooter,” she said. “Some are broken and dangerous.”
As for education, the English teacher believes Omaha can decrease unemployment via community college programs.
“I think now we are realizing that [four-year degrees] are not always the best option, and many times people spend a lot of time without being sure of what they want to do and then acquire a lot of student debt,” Smolen said. “So [community] schools are a good step in lowering the unemployment rate and promoting [economic well-being].”
Ultimately, Smolen said, she hopes to be a representative who works for the needs of the people.
Proactive, non-reactive, able to solve problems effectively. Rebecca (who also goes by Becky) Barrientos-Patlan, a second-time candidate for City Council District 4, considers these characteristics some of her primary political strong suits.
Barrientos-Patlan, who also ran for City Council in 2017, grew up and went to school in South Omaha. She said she’s forged bonds with her neighbors which has helped her understand the problems of her community. Now Barrientos-Patlan wants to solve those problems by representing District 4 on the City Council.
Barrientos-Patlan founded the Burlington Road Neighborhood Association (BRNA) and has organized gatherings for A Hand to Hold, which helps families of missing children by raising funds, releasing information to reporters and conducting vigils.
“I’ve worked on 14 different cases here in Omaha and Iowa. We worked for the children to be found and come home,” explained Barrientos-Patlan, who said not all the children made it back. “I want to pray with [the families], to love them.”
Barrientos-Patlan said South O was formerly a ghost town; she hopes to make it a multigenerational district with thriving businesses and a firm grounding in Hispanic roots.
“I’ve seen this city grow,” she said. “Latinos came, and businesses emerged everywhere and generated income, [and people] brought their families. It’s beautiful to see the diversity of countries and cultures.”
The candidate would like to see more transparency when it comes to city taxes. She pointed to the ongoing Metropolitan Utilities District Infrastructure Replacement Projects, which has been taxing residents since 2008.
“This is a big problem. It’s (at a cost) of $1.5 trillion,” she said. “With the collection of these taxes, the most affected are low-income people. This tax is going to increase, and no one is informed about that. It’s not reflected in the bills.”
Barrientos-Patlan is particularly interested in working with immigrants.
“I think language barriers are a problem. People come to the community and don’t speak English, [so] they don’t understand the rules and ordinances,” she said. “Newcomers are used to doing what they were doing in their own countries. That affects coexistence between neighbors, and we need to work to inform everyone [about local ways of life].”
Barrientos-Patlan, who said she lost a relative to COVID-19, does not support mask mandates. Instead, she believes each individual should be responsible for themselves.
“I’m not against the mask being used; I think it’s everyone’s [personal] decision,” she said.
The South Omahan knows that a political career might mean seeing her children and grandchildren less often, but Barrientos-Patlan said she’s willing to make those sacrifices to see her community thriving.
Vinny Palermo is running for a second term on Omaha’s City Council because he feels there is still a lot to work to do; he wants to provide a better future for his children and for everyone in South Omaha.
“The work of City Council is very, very important,” he said. “We make decisions that affect people’s livelihoods[finances] and family stability. This is not a social club. It’s not something to join because you’re bored.”
Palermo believes the immediate challenges for District 4 are garbage collection and road improvement. He said these issues take time to solve, since they involve multiple municipal departments. Palermo also said the city must address problems with South Omaha’s public transportation. According to Palermo, people forget about population density when thinking about transportation, which leads to a dearth of transportation opportunities.
In 2019, Palermo was sentenced to four years of federal probation and fined over $50,000 in combined fees and restitution for failing to file federal income tax returns from 2012 – 2014. The candidate said he was scammed by his accountant. Palermo hired and trusted him, he said, and the accountant told him he did not owe any taxes for those three years.
“The IRS is very relentless, and we all know that,” he said, “but now I am making all my payments as I can to catch up.”
Palermo said he plans to expand the city’s job portfolio. Omaha, he said, needs to improve its economy by supporting business. To do this, he proposes expanding trade courses at Omaha Public Schools so youth become part of the development of the Nebraska workforce.
“[Young people] just assume that a college education equals success, but that’s not true,” he said. “You get degrees for anything, and the kids end up in debt. The idea is that they can enter the labor [force quickly] and earn money in trades such as plumbing.”
The candidate said that, as a young man, he was rebellious and had a hard time “doing the right things.” He applauds Police Athletics for Community Engagement (PACE), a police-sponsored program offering free athletics to at-risk youth.
“We must support these [types of programs],” Palermo said. “PACE has helped many children through sports and [teaching] values. [The officers involved] also serve as mentors for young people.”
Palermo said he loves living in and working for the city of Omaha. He believes the city boasts many attractions, including the Henry Doorly Zoo, which he considers the best zoo in the world, and neighborhoods like Dundee and Benson, which he said are popular with Omahans and visitors alike.
“[Omaha has] wonderful philanthropists who have contributed to the city,” Palermo said. “We have a stable economy, and we must strengthen it.”
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