For comprehensive World-Herald coverage of the mayoral election, visit our Mayor's Guide.
* * *
One meeting, two versions.
The latest skirmish in the Omaha mayoral race revolves around a meeting that took place between Mayor Jim Suttle and some of the businessmen opposed to how the city would pay for a costly sewer separation project.
Two businessmen said Monday that during the meeting, which took an angry turn, Suttle reneged on an earlier “promise” to back a compromise, telling the businessmen it wasn't “politically palatable.”
The businessmen said they eventually turned to Republican Jean Stothert and others to break the impasse.
Suttle and a staff member who attended the meeting, mayoral spokeswoman Aida Amoura, had a different take. Suttle said he neither made any promises that he didn't keep nor did he ever use the words “politically palatable.”
“We didn't say anything like that,” Suttle said.
He also said the businessmen were angry because he insisted that any deal struck with the businesses had to be fair to all Omahans.
Suttle is running for re-election against Stothert in what has become a bruising battle down to the wire as the two sides hammer each other on television and through press conferences.
The election is a week from today.
The latest press conference in the campaign was called by Stothert and included two businessmen, Henry Davis, president of the Omaha Packing Co., and Audie Keaton, president of the James Skinner Baking Co.
The two attended the disputed meeting with Suttle on Feb. 11, 2012.
The meeting revolved around the controversial and costly sewer separation project that has plagued Omaha and other cities for several years. The federal government is requiring Omaha to upgrade its sewer system, primarily in the eastern part of the city.
The entire project is estimated to cost upward of $2 billion and will take more than a decade to complete. A key question has been how to pay for it.
Davis and Keaton, both registered Republicans, said Monday that they initially met with Suttle to argue against an earlier plan that 19 large industries, including their own, would pay a higher share of the cost. They said Suttle agreed to a compromise, expanding the number of businesses that would be asked to pay at a higher rate.
About six weeks later, however, they said they learned that Suttle was having second thoughts. They met again with Suttle, and that meeting took an “unprofessional” turn, Davis said.
“At that meeting, we asked Mayor Suttle twice why he had not kept his word and submitted a new (sewer pay) formula to the City Council. After evading (the question), the third time he angrily responded that 'the formula is not politically palatable,' ” Davis said.
“Upset that the mayor was going back on his word for political reasons, I got up to leave the meeting. The mayor became very agitated and started screaming as I walked out of his office,” Davis added.
Suttle said that never happened.
“I have never, ever wavered from that first conversation with Henry Davis,” Suttle said. “I always said we always have to have people agree to the same concept.”
Eventually Davis and others who had formed a coalition called Save Omaha Jobs said they sought help from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. The chamber hired a mediator to help hammer out an agreement with the city.
During those mediations, Davis and others said they grew to rely on Stothert's help in reaching a compromise. City Councilwoman Stothert is head of the council's Public Works Committee.
“Our experience with Councilwoman Stothert was completely different,” Davis said. “Jean was willing to listen, and more than willing to roll up her sleeves and work to reformulate the fee and save Omaha jobs.”
Suttle and Amoura also disputed this account, saying the mayor played a key role in the negotiations with the mediator.
Amoura said it was the mayor's Public Works Department that came up with several different proposals to pay for the sewer project, including the one that was ultimately agreed upon by all parties involved.
The mayor agreed.
“These are formulas we came up with. Jean sat in on a couple of meetings,” Suttle said.
Suttle also questioned why the two businessmen were bringing up the matter now, saying it was all about politics.
“The reality is that we got the job done. Henry, aren't you happy? Audie, aren't you happy?” Suttle asked.
Contact the writer: