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Palermo faces at least one challenger in reelection bid

Palermo faces at least one challenger in reelection bid

Incumbent joins teacher Sarah Smolen in race for District 4 seat on City Council

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Omaha City Councilman Vinny Palermo has drawn at least one challenger for his seat representing South Omaha.

Palermo, a Democrat on the officially nonpartisan council, announced his reelection campaign on Tuesday for the District 4 council seat.

Since he was first elected in 2017, Palermo said he has advocated for strong public safety, more opportunities for disadvantaged young people, and better basic city services like road maintenance and snow removal — and there's more to be done, he said.

Palermo, 47, praised Omaha's progress on increasing the diversity of the Police and Fire Departments and said the city needs to continue those efforts. He said he's pleased that the city's new police contract will offer more transparency, but he wanted officers to receive even bigger pay raises.

When the coronavirus pandemic ends, Palermo said, Omaha needs to invest heavily in its tourism as a way to jump-start the economy, create jobs and fill city coffers with hotel and travel-related taxes.

A boost in tourism could help Omaha pay for a few of Palermo's other goals, such as connecting young people who may not go to college with well-paying skilled jobs and directing more money to the city's Public Works Department to maintain roads and sewers and to fill an employee shortage.

"All departments are important, but Public Works is that one that affects everybody's daily lives," he said.

Palermo found himself in hot water in 2019 after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor counts of failing to file income tax returns in 2012, 2013 and 2014 from his tree-trimming business, Vinny's Tree Service.

A U.S. district judge sentenced Palermo to four years of federal probation and ordered him to perform 120 hours of community service. He was also ordered to pay a $35,000 fine on top of the $21,209 he had paid in restitution for the owed taxes.

Palermo on Tuesday said he has completed his community service and paid the fine and accepted responsibility.

"The way I was born and raised is: We take responsibility," Palermo said.

Challenging Palermo for the District 4 seat is Sarah Smolen, a public school teacher. As of Monday, she was only other person in District 4 to have requested the paperwork to petition her way onto the ballot.

Smolen, 33, said a guiding principle of her campaign will be accessibility. As an educator, Smolen said she sees firsthand how "information empowers people to action."

She said that means fighting for access to safe, affordable housing for South Omaha residents — ensuring that such housing isn't hazardous to people's health and holding landlords to the highest safety standards. It means providing easy-tofind, easy-to-understand information about homeownership and home loans.

"Perhaps they'll realize, 'I can buy my own home. ... I can build a future for my family,' " she said.

Smolen said the inner workings of Omaha's City Hall also need to be more accessible. It's difficult for most people to attend City Council meetings at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, she said.

The decisions made by council members and city leaders need to be widely distributed in multiple languages, she said, and council members must be responsive to all citizens. She said the city's online presence needs to be more user-friendly: If someone wants to get a permit for a block party or file a complaint against a police officer, it should be simple to do.

"Those things are important to people, and they should be easy to do," she said.

Smolen also believes that the Omaha Police Department needs to operate with complete transparency and accountability, and that misconduct should be addressed quickly and appropriately.

"The events of the previous year have revealed serious flaws in the way OPD, the local prison system and the local judicial system operate and treat the citizens of Omaha," Smolen wrote on her campaign website.

The city's primary election will be April 6. The general is May 11.

reece.ristau@owh.com, 402-444-1127 @reecereports

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