With the budget cycle and a dispute with the fire chief behind her, Mayor Jean Stothert is turning her focus to crime, development and building a more “customer-friendly” city government.
Thursday, Stothert spoke at the Omaha Press Club to mark her first 100 — actually, 108 — days in office.
The mayor said she's been working overtime to tackle the city's financial challenges and reorganize city departments to make them run more efficiently. Last Sunday, she said, was her first day off since taking office.
“We work seven days a week, a lot of 14-hour days,” Stothert said. “I ask for people to be patient. There's so much we need to get done, and it's going to take time. But I think we are certainly going in the right direction right now.”
She said she's proud to have filled in budget gaps without resorting to tax increases or major cuts to libraries, parks or other services. And she's confident she'll be able to rein in spending in the Fire Department — an agency of which she's frequently been critical — with the help of new leaders who will replace Chief Mike McDonnell.
Now, Stothert is paying particular attention to the city's Planning Department, which she said was the subject of frequent criticism during her time on the City Council. She explained her choice to bring back a retired planning official, Steve Jensen, to work alongside newly appointed Planning Director James Thele as a consultant.
The mayor noted that Omaha is going through a period of growth, with projects stretching from a new hotel complex at 10th Street and Capitol Avenue downtown to a new business park near 192nd Street and West Dodge Road.
She said that while she wants to ensure new development fits in with the look and feel of the city's neighborhoods, she also doesn't want to stand in the way of projects that could bring jobs and spark other growth.
“As the executive of this city, I don't create jobs,” she said. “The businesses create jobs. My job is to make sure that we have the good public policy in place so that those jobs can be created. So that those businesses will want to come here and stay here.”
Meanwhile, Stothert said she's committed to boosting the ranks in the Police Department to combat crime, particularly ongoing issues with gangs. She said she wants to ensure that a review of “good time” policies are a priority for the Nebraska Legislature.
“I'm not going to stand up here and tell you everything is fine in Omaha as far as crime goes,” she said.
Stothert said she's working with the police chief and the city's legal staff to develop a citizen review board for the Police Department. She hopes to have it in place by the end of the year.
On that topic and others, the mayor said she's trying to find new ways to keep in touch with Omaha residents. She said her staff is working to make the Mayor's Hotline a more valuable service and touted her growing count of followers on Facebook: “It's like little mini town hall meetings on there all the time.”
“I want to do everything I can to show people I was the right choice,” she said.