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Posts from the ‘City Hall’ Category


Mayor’s office goes on air to respond to street workers’ allegations

Illustration: Idea go

The mayor’s office took to the airwaves yesterday to give their side of the story, after KLIN’s “Drive Time Lincoln” devoted much of the previous day’s show to allegations by a city employee union that the city’s street maintenance division is riddled with bullying, infighting, threats and retaliation.

Winterized first broke this story on May 12.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, was interviewed on KLIN — and defended the administration’s handling of what he acknowledges is a troubled division.

Hoppe’s take on the situation was that laborers are also at fault, however, for engaging in one-upsmanship and “gotcha” games to try to get managers into trouble.

He said managers have complained that they’re targeted by employees who want to get rid of them, and he alleged ex-wives of managers have been approached by union representatives looking to get dirt on them.

“This has become a work environment that isn’t appropriate for either the managers or the employees,” Hoppe said.

He said the blue-collar workers often dredge up incidents that happened years ago – some before Mayor Chris Beutler took office – and the administration can’t do anything about those incidents now.

In addition, employees have protections guaranteed by union contracts, so Hoppe said he “can’t just go in there and start firing people” or “ordering people around.” He said he was disturbed by the insinuation that the mayor’s office hasn’t done anything about the problems, noting that a supervisor was fired for showing a sexually explicit video to coworkers and another employee was transferred after claiming he was being bullied.

And even though Hoppe says often city officials can’t substantiate laborers’ allegations, it appears they went to great lengths to refute some of their allegations. To wit: Two workers claimed they were punished for speaking out about the safety concerns with lawn mowers by being made to mow a huge compound with push mowers on a “blistering hot” day.

Hoppe said on KLIN that records indicate those mowers are routinely used to mow that area, and that the weather in September of 2008 never got above 77 degrees.

As for a new allegation of organized gambling in the streets division, Hoppe said Police Chief Tom Casady has invited any employee to come forward with specifics about it, and police will investigate. So far, nobody has come forward, Hoppe said.
And although Hoppe spent most of the interview refuting the blue-collar workers’ claims, he said “The truth usually falls somewhere in the middle.”

“It’s pretty clear that we’ve got some problems there that we have tried to address,” he said. “If people want to sit down, the administration is happy to do it, but people need to understand that not ever issue is retaliation.”

To hear the interview, click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

In other news revolving around this issue, the union that represents the laborers voted Thursday night to appeal the city’s denial of the grievance filed by 11 employees in the wake of the death of Eric Kohles, 37, last fall in a mowing accident. The grievance claimed the city had created an unsafe working environment for Kohles by assigning him to work on an unsafe mower without proper training and accused the city of maintaining “a working culture in which employees are discouraged from raising concerns about safety, are humiliated when raising such concerns, and are specifically retaliated against in a number of ways when raising such concerns.”

The grievance sought to have several managers removed from supervision duties.

After a police investigation into those allegations was inconclusive, the Public Association of Government Employees – a union that represents about 500 city employees – voted to appeal the issue to the city’s personnel board.

“We’ve got a bunch of legal action coming against the city so we’ll find out who’s right and who’s wrong,” PAGE President Jeff Stump told me today.


City’s dirty laundry in streets division aired on KLIN

The dirty laundry that first came out here regarding problems in the city of Lincoln’s street department were aired on KLIN on Wednesday.

Coby Mach’s “Drive Time Lincoln” spent much of the show yesterday interviewing union attorney Gary Young about the bullying, infighting and safety problems that have long plagued the street maintenance division of the Public Works department. Young told Mach — as he told me — that of all the public employees he’s represented statewide, this department is the “most poorly run” of all, and has been for five to 10 years.

(Click to play Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.)

A dozen city employees met with Mach — as they did with me multiple times in recent years — to talk about the problems they’ve experienced. They chose to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

Part of the reason this is news is the police investigation into the death of one of those street maintenance workers last year was recently made public, and it was inconclusive. Eric Kohles, 37, died a few days after an old Heckendorn mower he was using to mow a ditch tipped over onto him. Employees say Kohles’ death is emblematic of the kind of retaliation, bullying and training inadequacy that plagues the department.

One new issue that came out on the show is an allegation that a gambling ring is operated in the department.

“It is a one in a million kind of place,” Young said on KLIN. Young said the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, called him Wednesday and offered to meet with him and try to resolve the issues. Young said he’d take Hoppe at his word, although Hoppe has met with the street workers and union officials several times in recent years already.


Tracking Your Stimulus Dollars: Bike Racks For Buses?

Good question asked by 1011 News reporter Keller Russell: What economic benefit does the city get from the $140,000 in federal stimulus dollars that were used to buy bike racks for Lincoln’s city buses?
Watch it or read it here: Tracking Your Stimulus Dollars: Bike Racks For Buses?.


Well that didn’t take long

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

I knew Mayor Chris Beutler’s re-election would guarantee a property tax increase this year, but I didn’t think he’d admit to it so soon after winning his second term.

But there it was, right between the lines on the front page of the LJS:

The mayor, already deep into budget analysis, said he expects to ask for a public discussion on some serious questions:

* Should the city make deep cuts in services or raise more revenue?

* Should the city have a limited roads maintenance and construction program or raise more revenue? This will include a discussion about using more bonds for roads building.

“Raise more revenue” — how does a city raise more revenue? Through fees and taxes. Fees have gone up every year Beutler’s been in office, so that’s a given. And this year I expect Beutler will finally propose a property tax increase. And any discussion about building more roads through bonds means a property tax increase, since that’s how bonds are paid off.

Beutler promised “serious cuts” — but in his first term he backed off pretty quickly at any whiff of public opposition to his cuts. Pool closures, library cuts, even “meter readers” — very rarely did he go through with major cuts. He often brags about cutting 120 city positions — but only a handful of those were pure layoffs.

He said “revenue increases” will be considered. Again, he’s avoiding the word “tax,” but that’s what a “revenue increase” is.

I expect he’ll try to lay a lot of blame on state lawmakers for cutting state aid, but that only accounts for $1.8 million of the problem. Even before that cut became known, the city was projecting a $6.3 million deficit — and that’s not even counting raises that will have to be given to most city employees. The city projects that gap will widen to $19 million in five years, if things don’t change. So we’re sitting in almost the exact same place we were before he was elected to his first term as mayor.

Beutler said in his interview that the city budget was structurally imbalanced even before the recession took hold and he took office. But Beutler ran for his first term on a promise to fix the budget, and didn’t do it.

Here’s what he said in 2007, while campaigning for mayor:

Citing his experience with state budgets as a 24-year lawmaker, he says it’s time to fix a “structural problem” with Lincoln’s budget: City expenditures are outpacing revenue, according to five-year projections. “The City Council and the mayor have let this go on for way too long,” he says, “so that today what you have going on is essentially a mess.” In the short-term, it’s going to take “real cuts” not “one-time” cuts the council and mayor have made recently. He promises not to raise property taxes to make ends meet.

Seems to me, little has changed since then. Here’s what he said this week:

Before he became mayor, city budgets were being plugged with “one-time funds or other manipulations,” he said. Beutler would like to “restore fiscal order” to the budget.

Deja vu, anyone?

Now before you start accusing me of beating up on Beutler too much, know this: I voted for the guy. So did 65 percent of voters on Tuesday. If that isn’t a mandate to make the tough decisions he promised to make four years ago, I don’t know what is.


Street laborers’ union refuses to endorse mayoral candidate

The union that represents laborers in the city’s street maintenance division has refused to endorse either of the two candidates running for mayor on Tuesday.

The union is called the Public Association of Government Employees, or PAGE, and represents about 500 blue-collar, clerical and technical workers. It also represents laborers who were the subject of our special report last week, detailing the bullying and infighting that have plagued the streets division for years.

PAGE union President Jeff Stump

PAGE President Jeff Stump said the union doesn’t think either of the mayoral candidates is qualified.

“We feel Tammy Buffington doesn’t have the experience and her views on the commission (CIR) and unions are not something that we agree with and as far as Mayor Beutler we can’t endorse him because of issues in the street department that he has failed to address after a year and a half.”

Those issues, he said, are bullying, harassment and inadequate training — all the things detailed in our special report.

The union also declined to endorse a candidate in District 1, northeast Lincoln. Stump said they didn’t endorse Democrat Doug Emery because “he’ not a qualified candidate” and after promising not to “come after our pension” Stump said the first thing Emery did after getting elected was start working on reducing city employees’ retirement benefits.

“The first thing he came after was our pensions,” Stump said.

The union endorsed the Democrats in two districts: Jonathan Cook in southwest Lincoln and Carl Eskridge in northwest Lincoln. The union did not endorse anyone in the southeast Lincoln district, where incumbent Jon Camp is running against newcomer Bobbi Kosmicki.

“We just don’t feel that we know enough about them,” he said.


Nelson says Dems are wrong: he paid his child support, attorney’s bill

City Council candidate Travis Nelson released state records today that he says prove the state Democratic Party sent out a mailing that wrongly accuses him of failing to pay his child support since 2009.

Travis Nelson is running for the City Council.

Nelson released this document (nelson child support pg 1), which he said shows he has made his payments on time. He said he is considering suing the Democratic Party for “lying about my personal record of paying child support.”

“This is a false accusation against me personally,” he said in a press release. “It is untrue that I have not paid my child support for my son who is so important to me.”

Vic Covalt, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, has not returned a phone call seeking comment on Nelson’s assertion. The state Democratic Party paid for the mailing that went out late last week accusing Nelson of failing to pay child support, owing his divorce lawyer thousands and having a small claims judgment against him for money he owed Pella. Nelson works in construction. Nelson said he has also paid the attorney’s fees and Pella — which he described as a “complicated mess” because the company supplied the wrong size windows. He called the allegations “red herrings.”

A few days prior, the county Republican Party sent out a mailing pointing out that his opponent, incumbent Democrat Jonathan Cook, had failed to attend 80 percent of City-County “Common” meetings.

“My opponent was attacked on his public record of not showing up for his city council job,” Nelson said in the release. “I was wrongly attacked for things that occurred in my personal life and that is inexcusable and a below-the-belt kind of hit. My opponent has proven to voters that he doesn’t even show up for the job they elected him to do. I show up to work every day,”

Nelson said it’s not easy being a small home remodeler and contractor during a tough economy.

“Like thousands of workers in Lincoln, these are tough times and we have struggled. But I show up every day and I pay my bills. This game-playing with false accusations made against me personally are an insult to me and the voters of the 3rd City Council District.”

On another issue, Nelson today also acknowledged he was charged with disturbing the peace 11 years ago, “stemming from an argument with his former wife prior to their marriage.” Nelson served probation and completed an alcohol rehabilitation program.

“I fully accept responsibility for my role in the situation,” Nelson said in his press release. “That event made me take serious stock of my life and changed it forever, for the good.”

“My campaign has been about the issues important to voters. I’m proud of my family business, I’m proud of my family, and I’m proud of how I’ve dealt with the personal challenges I’ve had to face and conquer,” Nelson said.


Dems’ smear campaign begins

Well, here it is. The ugliest piece of campaign literature I’ve seen so far in this spring’s municipal election campaign: The Nebraska Democratic Party send out a mailing late last week bashing the Republican candidate for the City Council, in District 3. The headline: “Travis Nelson can’t manage his own money.”

Their evidence? He hasn’t paid his child support since July 2009. He owes his divorce attorney nearly $5,400. And he owes Pella $2,700, according to a small claims judgment in county court. Ouch.

This is the deal, folks. If you want to run for elective office around here, you’d better not have any skeletons in your closet, because they will find them. The Democrats are particularly good at digging up this kind of dirt. You may recall in the last City Council race, the Dems dogged Republican Adam Hornung for not paying the wheel tax on a pickup that he said was his father’s (who lives in another county).

I remember well the Dems’ press conference, during which they showed reporters pictures they’d taken of Hornung’s SUV in the parking lot of the law firm he works at. I wondered a) how they identified this potential chink in Hornung’s armor and b) was the head of the Democratic Party out skulking around in the parking lot, trying to get the photo?

This is what it’s come to. Somebody runs for office, and the other party sets about digging up dirt on them. To be fair, the Republicans actually launched the first salvo in the District 3 race, sending out a mailing noting that incumbent Councilman Jonathan Cook has missed 80 percent of City-County “Common” meetings.

Is that relevant? I think it is.

Is the fact that Nelson might have money problems relevant? The Dems’ mailer thinks so, asking people, “What kind of City Council member do you want? Responsible? Trustworthy? Budget Conscious? Travis Nelson IS NONE OF THESE THINGS.”

Does this mean the Democratic candidate in District 2, Bobbi Kosmicki, is not fit for office, too — given the news that she filed for bankruptcy last year?

I find it ironic that Democratic State Chairman Vic Covalt thinks it’s OK to do this kind of dirt-digging and spreading — considering he represents people in bankruptcy for a living. When I was a reporter, Covalt and I had several conversations about how The System treats poor people. I specifically remember him telling me I should go down to the courthouse every Friday and watch the parade of people who basically can’t afford to pay for things like car insurance and registration.

He fights for those people. And yet, in his other life as head of the Democratic Party — the party that ostensibly fights for the little guy — he slams a guy who can’t pay his bills for having the audacity to run for elective office.

I see hypocrisy in that. Do Vic and the Dems believe anybody who’s ever struggled financially — or at least to the point of it becoming a public record in a court of law — should not run for office? Is that the standard? Should it be? You tell me.


Cook mailings hit the mark

The paper documented the first of what will surely be more mailings nailing City Council candidates for this, that and the other thing — in the true spirit of election season.

The Journal Star’s take on the mailing was that it was misleading, because it said Councilman Jonathan Cook has missed 80 percent of the “City County meetings.” The reporter said that could lead some people to believe they’re referring to City Council meetings.

Lincoln City Council

Well those words are pretty close, but it is accurate. Did they mean to mislead? Maybe. However, I think it’s a legitimate issue to raise. Cook is notorious at city hall for missing meetings that are held in the morning. It’s a running joke. Why? He says he works late into the night. However, if you’re elected to the City Council, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a teacher or a janitor or an attorney or a software developer — you should attend as many meetings as possible.

Including “City County” meetings — the monthly meetings between the City Council and County Board. Lots of important issues are discussed at those meetings — like the implementation of the RUTS roads program, the financing of the new county jail and the numerous interlocal agreements the city and county have. And that’s just the Common meeting — nobody has analyzed his attendance at the Super Common meetings (which add the school district to the mix) or numerous other subcommittees he’s on. If they meet in the morning, he’s probably not there.

So I think it’s perfectly legitimate to question why Cook misses so many meetings — especially when he has put out several mailings proclaiming that he has the “best City Council meeting attendance record” (I must have missed that award ceremony). Apparently, attendance records do matter.


“Community scan” has some concerned about Big Brother

The city’s plans to do a “community scan” of Lincoln homes has some worried that Big Brother has a little too much time on his hands.

According to the minutes of a recent neighborhood roundtable meeting, the city plans to begin a “Lincoln Community Scan” to help Lincolnites crack down on problem properties by recording and evaluating housing code violations using smart phones and digital cameras. Data recorded includes the number of homes for sale, homes with peeling paint or structural deficiencies.

People will be trained to “record information during walking surveys” and then UNL will store the information collected in a database and the neighborhood will develop an action plan based on the problem areas, or “hotspots,” identified, according to the meeting minutes. About 1,400 parcels have already been “surveyed” in the Clinton Neighborhood, and next on the list is University Place and then the Woods Park Neighborhood. Ultimately, the goal is to survey all 14 core Lincoln neighborhoods.

Yunwoo Nam, assistant professor of community and regional planning at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is involved with the project, on which the city is partnering with UNL, NeighborWorks Lincoln and some neighborhood associations.

Some are suspicious of this program — which has been discussed on Drive Time Lincoln. I think Lincoln has more than its share of problem properties, but the city has proven largely inept at doing much about them, so I’m not sure what good the data will do anyone.

What do you think?


Fire union speaks with dollars, not words

You’d think with Nebraska on the precipice of becoming the next Wisconsin battlefield over unions, the Lincoln firefighters union would be an active participant in the municipal campaign now in full swing.

But they’ve been unusually quiet. No announcements of endorsements (which come with up to $15,000 campaign contributions), no reports of firefighters campaigning door-to-door for their favorite candidates. What’s up?

Certainly, the fire union’s last labor contract with the city of Lincoln — which gives some of them up to 11 percent in raises — led to a lot of raised eyebrows and unfavorable press. Perhaps they feel it’s better to lay low this election.

However, the fire union is still spending money on the campaign, although through different channels. State campaign finance reports show the Lincoln Firefighters Association PAC contributed $30,000 to the Nebraska Democratic Party in March. In other recent city elections, the fire union has donated directly to candidates. But this campaign, so far they have given their money to the state Dems — who in turn have spent money in support of Mayor Chris Beutler and Councilman Jonathan Cook. (That’s as of March 21, those numbers will undoubtedly change by Election Day.)

The only campaign money I could find from the fire union to support a candidate was $2,289 in support of Bobbi Kosmicki — who’s running against the fire union’s nemesis, Republican Jon Camp, in southeast Lincoln.

Beutler also gave the state party $12,560.

All of which indicates to me that the fire union is still very much a factor in this election, but they’re trying to keep a low profile by giving money through other conduits.

The campaign finance reports also indicate the Lancaster County Democrats are not very involved (not in receiving or spending money, anyway).

(One interesting side note: While I was trolling the spending reports, I came across a $75,000 donation the Ohio Democratic Party gave the Nebraska Democratic Party in October. )

Another curiosity: The state records indicate the Lincoln Firefighters PAC dissolved itself not long after giving that 30 grand. I’ve emailed the union head to ask why.

The reports indicate the Republican Party hasn’t spent much money on its Republican candidates for the City Council. As of April 5, the Lancaster County Republican Party had only donated $500 to Travis Nelson and $500 to Melissa Hilty. And get this, they gave a whopping $150 to Republican mayoral candidate Tammy Buffington. Go figure.

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