In the fray

Mayor Suttle and advocates challenge petitions

He isn’t resigning — we know that much. But whether or not Mayor Jim Suttle will actually face a recall election is still being decided in Douglas County courtrooms and counting rooms. And now we might not know as soon as expected. The Douglas County Election Commission until Dec. 4 to validate nearly 37,600 signatures submitted Nov. 19 by the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee. The group would need 26,643 valid signatures from registered Omaha voters to force a special election early next year. But Suttle filed an injunction request with the Douglas County District Court on Nov. 24, asking for a 75-day window for his advocates to comb through the nearly 3,000 petitions. “The 15 days is wholly inadequate for the plaintiff to protect his rights as an elected official,” Suttle wrote in the court filing. District Judge Peter Bataillon is scheduled to hear the case Dec. 1. Forward Omaha, an anti-recall group, has obtained its own copies of the petitions and has spent the past week poring over the documents looking for inaccuracies. Noelle Obermeyer, co-treasurer for the group, says there's plenty of cause for concern. “We’re not being nit-picky, but we’re pulling out whole petitions that are questionable,” she says. “There is no way you wouldn’t want to question this.” The dueling recall groups formed nearly a month apart giving the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee a slight head start. The group filed a statement of organization of a political committee with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission on Aug. 17, a requirement for political groups that raise or spend more than $5,000 in a calendar year. Forward Omaha reached that threshold on Oct. 18. Neither group has yet been required to release their sources of funding but both are accepting public donations via their websites. In light of the recent allegations Recall Committee spokesperson Jeremy Aspen has repeatedly said the group complied with all city laws during the petition process, but Obermeyer says her group would consider further legal action if the injunction isn't granted. “Circulators had no problem telling our cameras that they were being paid by the signature,” Obermeyer says. The city prohibits paying petition circulators for each signature. “There are outright and blatant irregularities, and we don’t know if the election commission has the ability to look at all this information.” Omaha has been down this road before. About 35,000 people signed a petition that led to Mayor Mike Boyle being recalled in 1986. A 2008 attempt to recall Mayor Hal Daub failed when petitioners didn’t collect enough signatures to force a vote. Since taking office in 2009, Suttle has been the target of three other recall inquiries. Leading up to the 2010 budget hearings, the mayor said he wouldn't “kick the can down the road,” arguing that his predecessors had ignored Omaha's growing budget shortfall that stood at $4.7 million in August. To reduce it, Suttle approved a budget that included a $50 wheel tax increase for residents and commuters, a new 2.5 percent tax on restaurants and bar tabs, and, for the second-consecutive year, a property increase. The tax hikes weren't popular. If this recall effort is successful, Omaha would become the first city of its size to remove two mayors from office. Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t think that history makes Omaha particularly recall-happy. He says this recall effort reflects a national trend of American citizens' dissatisfaction with politicians because of the floundering economy, high unemployment rates and two divisive foreign wars. “The recall effort shows Omaha is no exception,” he says. “While the mayor’s personality may have played a role, the main issue is tax increases. And the lesson is simple — adding new taxes and increasing those already on the books is a difficult sell in good times, but impossible in today’s economy. “Omahans are fair-minded and reasonable, but they have limits, and those limits have apparently been reached.” Suttle acknowledged that personality conflict in a Thanksgiving message posted to YouTube on Nov. 24. Sitting alongside his wife, Deb, Suttle says in the video, “Even though I’m a keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy, I will do a better job of letting you know how we have been providing city services that operate efficiently, how we are working to make you feel safer in your neighborhoods, and how we are improving economic development, finding those job opportunities for employment so our city can continue to be the best place for you and your family to live.” With the video having been viewed only 450 times as of Nov. 30, the question is whether or not Omaha is still listening. UPDATE: Suttle’s injunction request was denied by Judge Bataillon, but the mayor will have one more opportunity to submit evidence of fraud at a hearing on Dec. 20. The Douglas County Election Commission is expected to certify its findings on Dec. 4.

posted at 08:24 pm
on Wednesday, December 01st, 2010

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