In the heat of a rugged campaign, it’s easy to make a mistake. That’s what appears to have happened up in Omaha, where Jim Suttle’s opponents say the mayor’s staffers broke the law by sending campaign e-mails from work.
The pro-recall side is saying Suttle’s staffers should not have used their city e-mail accounts to respond to the hullabaloo over anti-recallers busing homeless people to the election office to vote (presumably against) Suttle’s recall.
Nebraska state law says public officials can express their opinion on ballot measures, but they cannot use public resources to do so. They can only provide neutral, factual information about the proposal when they’re on the clock, although they can support or oppose ballot measures on their own time.
Suttle’s staffers sent out e-mails in response to a deluge of requests for a response to the allegations about the busing scandal. They now say they did nothing wrong, because they’re allowed to respond to requests for information.
This brought me back to April, when Mayor Chris Beutler held a press conference to talk about how he was going to make sure the arena-building process would be transparent and accountable — and he used the opportunity to also say the arena would be key to Lincoln’s “prosperous future.”
At the time, Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission Director Frank Daley told me there are two exceptions to the law: Public employees and officials can respond to inquiries by the press or public and research and prepare materials to assist the governing body in determining the effect of a ballot question. Public employees also can answer questions about a ballot measure during a news conference on an unrelated topic.
However, Beutler’s information was hardly neutral, and he wasn’t asked to give his opinion on the arena project — it seemed a clear violation of the law, but Beutler’s city attorney thought it was legal, and apparently nobody complained to the A&D about it, so he got by with it.
In Omaha, it’s a bare-knuckled brawl — I doubt they’ll let Suttle get by with it.
Lincoln’s Republican candidate for mayor had her first experience meeting the press today.
She was introduced by Councilman Jon Camp — who probably wished he were the one making the announcement, if it didn’t mean he’d have to give up his council seat.
Her three main issues are:
• “Massive” city debt — $720 million worth — although she couldn’t say what she’d do about that. Although to be fair, it’s not like you can wave a magic wand and make those debts disappear.
• Tax increases under Mayor Chris Beutler’s reign — she said there have been nine of them, although I can’t think of that many. There’s the voter-approved bar and restaurant taxes for the arena, a slight property tax increase and an expansion of the telecommunications tax. But she also listed impact fees (where developers have to help pay for the cost of bringing infrastructure to their projects) and utility rate increases, which I wouldn’t call taxes but they do hit voters’ wallets anyway.
• Ever-increasing salaries in labor agreements.
Buffington did fine with her speech, until it was time to answer reporters’ questions (which is the worst part of any press conference for the person behind the microphone).
She struggled when asked what she would do about the state-mandated system of setting public employees’ salaries (the ol’ CIR issue). State GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson helped her out by saying all Mayor Beutler has done on this issue is — to paraphrase — talk big and send a little ol’ letter to state lawmakers. Buffington would march up the capitol and really push for change, he was saying.
When asked whether she supported the bar and restaurant taxes that will help pay for the arena, she said she didn’t. She said she voted against the arena bonds. But she also said she’s excited about the project, which she referred to as “our situation.” That was somewhat confusing.
She was quite poised and well-spoken for a newcomer to politics — but she has a lot of homework to do before her first debate with Mayor Chris Beutler. Alas, the life of a non-incumbent. And kudos to any novice willing to enter the sometimes-brutal arena.
Our $260 million investment in downtown Lincoln has a chink in it, and Mayor Chris Beutler is fighting mad, saying it’s totally unacceptable and he’ll make the responsible parties pay.
(To his credit) Beutler went public with the news that a big chunk of the Antelope Valley Project — specifically, the underside of the new O Street bridge — literally fell on Tuesday. The city closed the Antelope Valley trails in Union Plaza from N to Q streets, to be safe. But city officials said, don’t worry, the bridges are safe. Great.
These bridges were just built in the past few years and already they’re falling apart? The mayor ought to be mad.
The mayor’s office was also mad — at me — a couple of years ago when I wrote a lengthy, in-depth investigative series of stories about the Antelope Valley Project, concluding that the city of Lincoln had spent $34 million more than projected, even as it continued the work at a cost of $1,352 per hour.
In 2000, Antelope Valley proponents said the project would cost $175 million. That number has since been revised to more than $260 million. Although to be fair, there was a little footnote in 2000, noting that those were 1999 dollars. I also learned there really was no set budget; the city council approved a new budget every year.
The state auditor also found “significant accounting lapses” last year.
Less eye-catching was the fact that a New York consulting company called Parsons Brinckerhoff was hired to manage both design and construction of Antelope Valley under a “cost-plus fixed-fee” contract in which the company is paid for its costs, plus a fixed fee.
Such contracts are often criticized because they don’t encourage cost savings and (this is key) design flaws can be more easily covered up. Parsons Brinckerhoff, by the way, was also one of two companies that oversaw design and construction of Boston’s infamous Big Dig — widely considered the biggest public works debacle in our nation’s history. That interstate tunnel has been plagued by leaks and a woman was killed after 26 tons of concrete fell and crushed her car.
So I imagine city officials are a little nervous to see concrete falling from their bridges, too.
However, the mayor’s office did a full-court press when I was researching Antelope Valley, doing their best to make sure the story turned out as positively as possible. They sent a panel of city officials to refute various aspects of the story and argued that I should use larger inflationary factors to adjust the original cost projections (and blunt the blow) — all the spin you would expect in that situation.
After all, Beutler inherited the Antelope Valley Project. And after my series came out, Beutler decreed that the city would not proceed with phase two of the project. At least, not now.
The upshot is that even though it can make for dense reading, stories about the types of contracts the city enters for massive projects like Antelope Valley do matter. Which is why it’s important that we closely watch the way an even bigger public works project — the arena project — is handled. The way companies win bids matters. The way construction is overseen matters. The companies that are selected to build it matter.
Especially if it’s you who is under that bridge when a chunk of it gives way.
Looks like there will be a Republican running against Mayor Chris Beutler after all.
“We have somebody running,” the executive director of the county GOP, Joe Murray, told me today. “An incredible candidate.”
He said the candidate is a business person not commonly associated with politics. The Journal Star is reporting today that it may be Tammy Buffington, a Tea Partier, and that some are talking about former Councilwoman Robin Eschliman as a possibility. (I’m surprised the LJS reported Buffington without attributing that to anyone; they seem to be getting more lax about using unnamed sources. Which is fine by me, I just wish they would have let me do that when I worked there!)
Whoever it is, they’ve got their work cut out for them since they’re getting a late start.
Expect an announcement soon.
On the City Council front,
Doug Emery is leaning toward running for re-election to his seat representing northeast Lincoln, and I’m told he will be challenged by newcomer Melissa Hilty, a Gering native and UNL grad who has worked as a legislative aide and committee clerk.
Councilman John Spatz (northwest Lincoln) and Councilman Jonathan Cook (southwest Lincoln) have not yet announced their re-election plans — although I expect both will run again.
I was surprised to read that our fearless leader, Mayor Chris Beutler, allowed the city attorney’s office to sue six developers for not putting in streets, sidewalks and all the accoutrements that go along with a new subdivision.
After all, Beutler has spent much of the past four years kissing up to developers, to the point where he sometimes seems more like a Republican than a Democrat. From handing out TIF like it’s candy to freezing impact fees to spending millions to build a new space for permitting and planning at city hall, Beutler has worked hard to reverse Lincoln’s reputation for being anti-business. He even tried, but failed, to create a local housing stimulus program of his own.
It seems to have worked, in that nobody appears ready to challenge Beutler for his job this spring. The Democrats are just so excited to have an elected official in place that they probably wouldn’t care if he did everything but change the D behind his name to an R. And the Republicans don’t have much they can complain about, since Beutler usually behaves like one of them on development issues.
But now comes word that the city is suing developers for not doing what they said they were going to do. They probably should be held accountable, even though these are tough times for developers.
Still, just a few months before the election, it seems like a risky move. Then again, Beutler also approved a fire contract that gives firefighters up to 10 percent raises, in a final gift, just in case he doesn’t get re-elected, perhaps. He’s behaving like a man who’s not too worried about winning.