The only comments to get any applause at the mayoral forum Monday night were from a candidate calling for more decorum in what has become an increasingly negative campaign.
“Things are getting ridiculous,” said former Omaha City Council President Dan Welch, calling on City Councilwoman Jean Stothert to take down an ad tying him to tasteless Twitter comments and a T-shirt that portrayed her as a stripper.
The forum, sponsored by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom and the Omaha Alliance for the Private Sector, was the first in the packed recent schedule of campaign events that didn't feature Mayor Jim Suttle.
It's largely believed that the mayor, the only Democrat among the major candidates, will make it safely through the April 2 primary, so the forum was an opportunity for the other candidates to make their cases to oppose him in the general election.
The questions generally focused on spending, taxes and economic development. Many of the questions were tied to the city's contracts with public safety unions, which candidates said now consume approximately 60 percent of the city's budget.
State Sen. Brad Ashford, an independent, said he would like to move the city's employees to a defined contribution system and away from pensions.
The city's police and fire pension system is underfunded by some $610 million. Other Nebraska cities eliminated their public safety pension systems in the 1980s, Ashford said. “It's difficult to get there, but I think that's where we need to go.”
Stothert, chairwoman of the City Council committee that negotiated the current fire contract, pointed out that state law limits the city's power to negotiate a better deal.
The current contracts, she said, are the result of decades of negotiations that the city can't unilaterally overrule. Given that, the reductions in pension and health benefits represent major successes, she said.
“Right now we're trying to dig ourselves out of a hole,” she said. “We made some great progress, but we have a lot left to do.”
Businessman Dave Nabity — who, like Stothert, is a Republican — said he would research other contracts to ensure that city taxpayers get a fair deal. If city unions didn't agree to scaling back, he said, he would consider outsourcing some responsibilities.
The candidates also touched on their plans for tackling crime. A video showing an Omaha police officer throwing a man to the street in an arrest last Thursday proves the need to reinstate the police auditor, Nabity said.
“You learn pretty quick the citizens are not going to communicate with law enforcement, because they don't trust them,” he said.
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