For argument’s sake, let’s say that Mayor Jim Suttle’s reasoning was right, that taking action to get back $1 million in overpayments to 258 police officers would have cost the city more than it would have recovered.
That’s still a decision the City Council — and Omaha taxpayers, whose million dollars this is, after all — deserved to know about.
The council might have agreed with him, or council members may have wanted to try to recover the money. Either way, the taxpayers and their elected representatives should have been in the loop from the moment the million-dollar goof was uncovered.
In a Nov. 20, 2012, memo to then-finance director Pam Spaccarotella, the mayor wrote that after months of discussions within his administration, “I do not believe it is in the public interests to pursue this matter, and I am hereby directing you not to pursue the matter.”
The mayor gave two key reasons for taking a pass: The costs of complicated legal action and the city’s improving relations with police officers. The police union is backing Suttle in Tuesday’s election, so let’s set that issue aside and simply focus on the finances.
The overpayments stemmed from a 2008 state labor court decision on police wages. The city paid the money in the first five months of 2009 — before Suttle took office, it should be noted — but paid an extra $1,062,285 as it worked to implement the court’s complex changes to officer pay scales. Individual overpayments ranged from $22 to about $9,000.
If all of the officers chose to challenge the city’s request to return the extra money — even the one who got $22 — then certainly there would have been costs for the city. But weighing the possible expense against the potential benefit is an issue the City Council should have been involved with.
This wasn’t the first quiet financial decision made by the mayor. He previously awarded pay raises to top city executives after promising to impose a salary freeze on his staff. He didn’t tell the City Council or the public about those raises, and he later apologized for the way they were revealed.
It’s because of the heated campaign between Suttle and City Council member Jean Stothert that we’re now learning about the mayor’s decision not to seek recovery of these overpayments.
Some will say this is just more political mudslinging. Suttle has accused Stothert of secrecy, too, over a provision in the firefighters union contract that his camp says gave an additional three firefighters the right to retire under an old contract with pension spiking. (A big difference: The fire contract was negotiated by a committee of council members, approved at a public City Council meeting and signed by the mayor.)
And Omahans remember another $1 million surprise — Omaha school board members being caught off-guard to learn that they owed a seven-figure retirement payout to former superintendent John Mackiel, in addition to his $200,000 annual pension.
All of these episodes are reminders that transparency is the cornerstone of good government. Elected officials need to be mindful that it is the public’s business they are doing, with the public’s money.
Decisions about both should be made in public.