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Jim Suttle Feels the Heat as Omaha’s Mayor


Cropped image of Omaha Mayor, Jim Suttle. (Ima...

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UPDATE:  Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle incurred the wrath of some fat cats and some average Joe the Plumbers and became subject to a recall election this winter.  Voters opposed to the recall and in support of Suttle remaining in office defeated the pro-recall ranks in a tight Jan. 25 election.  The situation even caught the attention of the New York Times, whose Jan. 26 article makes note of how Omaha and greater Nebraska seem to take the recall route with unusual frequency.  My take is that Suttle’s rigid engineering demeanor was the wrong note at the wrong time for some in the community who saw him as an interloper on the scene.  He walked into a slate of problems that would have alienated almost any leader, but he didn’t do himself any favors with his autocratic style and superior attitude.  Like most of us, he is his own worst enemy.  But he’s survived to at least complete this term, and now that the economic forecast is looking a bit better for the city and the nation he’s out of the hot water, at least until the next crisis hits.

 

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle was feeling the heat in office when I wrote this story for the New Horizons about nine months ago. But the temperature has only gotten hotter since, as the City’s economic morass has proven even deeper than once thought, and the mayor’s ideas for digging out of the hole have elicited the ire of more and more residents.  It may be that the recession that’s forcing difficult decisions at every level of government is a problem too big for any one elected official to effectively address, and that whomever is in office would be compelled to take stands and to propose fixes that displease a whole lot of people.

NOTE: As of September 2010 the anti-Suttle sentiment ratcheted up to the point that a formal recall petition drive was instituted, requiring organizers collect a substantial number of signatures by a certain deadline.  If the required signatures are gathered within the designated time frame then a recall election would be held. Omaha went through this before when rancor directed at then mayor Mike Boyle led to a recall campaign, and in that case the sitting mayor was unseated by a vote of the citizenry.  The action didn’t necessarily lead to better city government or leadership in the mayor’s office, but it did shake things up.

Jim Suttle Feels the Heat as Omaha’s Mayor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Jim Suttle served as an Omaha City Councilman during a mostly robust economic period for the city. Then last spring he went and got himself elected mayor in the midst of a recession, promptly inheriting the worst financial crisis in recent city history. Priority one his first six months in office has been getting a grip on a budget that’s been running in the red and finding ways to trim spending and increase revenues to avoid a projected deficit next year.

Dealing with the city’s precarious financial straits has been a trial-by-fire baptism for Suttle, who’s weathered much criticism over his cost-cutting and revenue- generating plans. The 66-year-old retired corporate suit and City Hall veteran knows that flak comes with the territory, especially when city programs, services, jobs, wages and benefits are on the line.

Before becoming a household name the Baltimore native and West Virginia University grad enjoyed a decades-long career with international architecture-engineering firm HDR of Omaha. As mayor, he’s been vilified in the media, but he’s been nothing if not consistent and resilient. He’s called it like he’s seen it. He’s gone on record saying he’s not only ready for the challenges of this crucial position in this uncertain time, but relishes the responsibility for pulling the city out of its quagmire and, what’s more, that he’s uniquely qualified to do so.

 

 

He proudly points to a long private sector career and to service as Omaha Public Works Director as experiences that steeled him for the tough issues he faces in the hot seat he now occupies. As a civil engineer he headed up the controversial urban renewal North Freeway project that displaced residents and ruptured a community. As public works director under Mike Boyle in the ‘80s he felt the wrath of taxpayers over street repair, snow removal, garbage pickup, et cetera.

“I certainly knew all about the tenseness of the job and the pressures because I worked very closely with Mike Boyle when he was mayor, and so I was in this office a lot and I saw what he was going through and that was all in my mind as I prepared for this,” he said.

Even in the best of times a sitting mayor feels the heat that comes with the position, but the temperature rises when people’s pocketbooks and bank accounts are hurting, their jobs hang in the balance and the basic city services their tax dollars support are reduced. In grappling with severe budget issues Suttle’s been forced to make some Solomon-like choices.

He’s not helped by a dull, clipped delivery that falls flat in this sound bite era. He can come off as cold and imperious in print or on TV. On the other hand, the calm and certainty he radiates may be just what the city needs in a leader at this unstable juncture. Spend any time with his honor and it’s hard not to note his sure, decisive air. Where some see arrogance, he exudes confidence.

“I am confident,” he said. “I know I can do this job. I’m just prepared for meeting these challenges. I’ve been through this, I was through this as public works director, I was through this in my time at HDR when we would have something chaotic happen with a project or something catastrophic happened with the company, and I would just plow right into it. I’m not afraid of problems. I’ve dealt with catastrophic problems all throughout my career, and you can’t run from them, you have to turn and face them and step into them, and that’s what I do.”

Fairly or unfairly, he’s come under extreme fire from the moment he entered office. Even before then, really. In a headline-grabbing episode a week before he was sworn-in reports emerged that one-time key Suttle adviser Matthew Stamp, who was slated to be co-chief of staff, had been the subject of a police investigation some years ago regarding allegations he’d had sex with a minor. No charges were brought against Stamp. Suttle at first seemed to dismiss concerns about Stamp as rumblings from the rumor mill and implying he didn’t believe in background checks. He seemed to be sticking by his man.

Then, in the wake of public outcry, Suttle did an abrupt about-face and rescinded Stamp’s appointment and cut all ties to Clear Communication Partners, the political consultant firm of Stamp and Gary Di Silvestro, another key former aide. But Suttle did not reveal what he knew about Stamp prior to the story blowing up. Some chided his decision-making process and penchant for staying on-message platitudes to the exclusion of answering legitimate questions.

Months after the imbroglio Suttle acknowledged that ending associations with such close aides “was really difficult. We were family. They were involved in my campaigns and in my personal world for five years.” He said the news caught him “blind sided,” adding, “I learned something for the first time in my life when my wife called and read me this horrible article. I was in West Virginia visiting my mother. That was not fun. I was a deer in headlights, but I came out of that, I saw what I needed to do, I called some 20 people and 27 hours later I made my mind up to sever relationships. I just made my decision and I did not look back.”

As he’s settled into the job he seems less reactive and more open to seeing other points of view, although he makes no bones about standing firm on his beliefs.

“I like to make decisions and then run with that decision, but if I find the decision has got flaws or there’s something better I will change my mind, and I’m not embarrassed about that. I’m not driven by the ego, I’m driven by doing what’s right
for this city and not what’s right for Jim Suttle, and if that leaves me in the wake of the tide, then so be it. The people put me in this position, I represent the people, I don’t represent any other special interest groups whatsoever.”

He won’t temper his assertive manner to avoid critics.

“No, because to do that you’re starting to go in the direction that you see too many politicians go,” he said, “and that is they start paying attention to polls. They start making decisions around the polls or they start making decisions around what’s on the editorial page or letters to the editor or talk radio. No, that’s wrong and that’s going to get you in deep trouble when it’s all said and done because the problems will still be there and there’ll be messier. You get to the problems and get to them now and don’t let them get worse.”

 

 

He won’t be thrown by negative comments directed his way.

“I would say you’ll find me take five percent of it personally, whereas my wife takes 95 percent of it personally. I’m conditioned to just go ahead and let the flack come forward and deflect it to the side and then get on with the mission. This is the whole thing I was faced with in the campaign and in these early months in office.

“I could see there was a particular course that needed to be followed and I was going to stay on that course, and those who didn’t want me in this office or those who disagreed and were trying to get me off mission, off course, they never succeeded. I stayed the course, and I think quite frankly that’s a reflection of my leadership — that I can let the flak and the noise and everything else go around and stay on course toward the better good in front of it.”

He can come across as stubborn, cantankerous and aloof when pressed. At other times he can be easy, warm and engaging, which is how this reporter found him on a recent visit to his office in the City County Building.

Some might view becoming mayor just as the recession hit as rotten luck. Not Suttle. This self-described “optimist” and “glass-is-always-half-full” fellow sees it as an opportunity for making a difference in his adopted hometown. Public office is the fulfillment of a long-harbored dream and long-practiced philosophy of service. Being in this lightning rod post is exactly where he wants to be, good times or bad. It’s why he left corporate America six years ago to run for City Council.

He credits an HDR mentor, Bob Rohling, with instilling in him a greater-good orientation. “He said to me, ‘You can’t just take, take, take from your community without give, give, giving back.’ I’ve never forgotten those words,” said Suttle.

“I think we need to start though with a foundation. I am following a dream and I’ve had this dream for 40 years, and so as I was approaching my 60th birthday I said to myself, You have a choice here. So I went into see Dick Bell, the chairman of HDR, and started talking to him and he said, ‘Jim, I know this is your dream, let’s make it happen.’ I talked to my wife that night and she said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ And then I went to talk to my financial adviser, who I thought would tell me to pound salt and he said, ‘Now you can afford to do it,’ and so we put it together.

“So I had the basics of what you really need to run for public office — you gotta have that fire in the belly, you really do, and I was committed to taking my dream and moving on my dream. And I had the support of my employer, I had the support of my family and I had the financial capabilities to do it. I didn’t have to be dependent on anything else or anybody else except me.”

While he seemingly came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Marc Kraft for the District 1 City Council seat in 2005, Suttle was no newcomer. There was his public works tenure. His Council win came in his only bid for public office up to then, but he’s been active in local and state politics since HDR brought him to Omaha in 1971. He and wife Deb raised their two daughters here. A trained nurse, she’s also been active in politics — appointed by then-Gov. Ben Nelson to a Nebraska Legislature seat she later won election to. She’s also a busy community volunteer.

The couple had moved around the country for his work but once they came to Omaha they stayed put. Before long the political animal in Suttle found him raising money for candidates, stumping for them, advising them.

His involvement in politics goes back even farther, to college in the mid-’60s, when he served on the WVU student legislature, and to HDR posts in New Mexico, Missouri and Massachusetts. His student government experience got him hooked. As he worked in politics he recognized his analytical mind, managerial skills, leadership qualities and collaborate bent made him suited for the field.

“I found I liked it. I found my engineering mind let me figure out how to get good problem definition, which is necessary in anything you do, so that’s what I’m good at and I’d been doing it all my life in my professional world but also doing it while dabbling in politics as well. Good problem definition lets you begin to assemble the people and the alternatives to solving, and then you can solve — one, two, three. That’s my success as an engineer, that’s my success as a politician.”

At HDR Suttle embedded himself in the political arena of the communities he served, laying the groundwork for the company doing business in new markets. He beat the bushes, he pressed the flesh, he did dog-and-ponies, he cultivated relationships — the very things a lobbyist or politician does in building a base.

“I was part of the growth engine that took the company from seven offices to 150 offices, that took the company from 350 people to 8,000, and I found as I went to the different marketplaces I needed to know who the local officials were, be it at the state, county or city level, so they knew who HDR was,” he said. “And out of that we really began to follow the decision makers. So when it came time for us to seek professional work or offer professional services we were in the right places at the right time dealing with the decision makers. It helped us to maximize our time, get focused and make sure we were paying attention to local customs, local cultures, whatever it might be that was going to let HDR be hired.

“An example of that was going to Boston with nothing and winning back-to-back contracts on the Central Artery. That was a design all around the community in what I was seeing and learning, and that headline in the Boston Globe when we won that second contract says it all, because it told me I succeeded with my plan: ‘Local firm wins Central Artery contract.’ Notice it said ‘local firm,’ and we really weren’t, but we were because we designed it that way and in the eyes of the community and of decision makers and of the Boston Globe we were local. We became local as we continued to grow that office from zero to 75-100 people.”

 

 

Suttle also gained much political capital in Omaha by serving on civic boards, giving him an insider’s entry to the movers-and-shakers who make things go and some built-in traction and name recognition for when he sought public office.

Outside local Democratic political circles and corporate back rooms, however, Suttle remained relatively unknown to the general public until his City Council stint. Even after four years on the Council his low-key style made made him a dark horse candidate against mayoral challenger Hal Daub, a Republican stalwart and former Omaha Mayor and U.S. Congressman from Nebraska. Suttle’s blunt but bland persona and short elected history undoubtedly worked to his advantage though in facing off with the sharp-tongued Daub, who carried the baggage of a long, productive but contentious-filled public service career.

Though he seemed a decided underdog at the outset, Suttle appeared supremely confident in his chances from the get-go. He’s well aware he didn’t inspire excitement in many quarters, but he never let detractors spin him from his prize. In his bulldog manner, he kept grinding away, focused on that big bone, never doubting he’d get it. He drew extra motivation from being underestimated.

“I think it goes to the fact that a lot of people didn’t want me in this job, a lot of people didn’t think I would even win. I did, I knew I was going to win. From the moment I made the decision to run in August (2008) I knew I was going to win. And I’m not saying that from an ego standpoint, I’m saying it from something that the people didn’t study about me, the media and the Chamber and other places — I am a part of the marketing success of HDR, which was always looking for a new mousetrap. Every two years we reinvented our marketing thrust, and so I built on all that because I knew how to put the winning plan in place, and I did.

“What has been the challenge here is how do I get the acceptability of the business community and the Republicans that didn’t vote for me in the west and any of the other naysayers. I have to earn that, I know I have to earn it. I don’t lose sleep about it. I know it’s on my shoulders to earn their trust, not on their shoulders to just automatically give it to me.”

Soon after taking the oath of office June 8 as Omaha’s 50th mayor, Suttle put in perspective just how dire the budgetary crunch is when he spoke about the need for taking drastic measures “to prevent the city from falling off a cliff,” perhaps even into bankruptcy. This was unchartered territory for a city that had drawn the admiration of analysts and observers for its stable, diversified, economy, Triple A bond rating, low unemployment and high quality of life. It was only when Suttle delineated a laundry list of cuts that the crisis made page one news.

“I’ve been feeling all along and saying all along that the public was in denial that there was a problem. Closing the swimming pools one week early, closing libraries on weekends, shutting down helicopters for a month, all got us out of denial and the public began to see there is a real problem.”

After the campaign but before taking office, the fiscal crisis was only partly known. Still, he spoke about the need for belt tightening. Once the full extent of the dilemma was apparent, he no sooner took office than he described the hard choices that lay ahead and laid out in no uncertain terms what was at stake.

He confronted the problem head-on, a trait he learned long ago and still lives by.

“Well, my whole persona, my whole methodology for being an engineer, for being a manager, for being a business person is molded by the people who influenced me in my career,” he said. “So let’s just take Chuck Durham (an HDR founder) — he had a philosophy that if you see something that needs to be done, don’t ask permission, get it done. I never forgot that and that’s always been in my style. And this got me into some conflicts when I was on the City Council, with some Council members who maybe saw me getting in the way of things in their district, or in the way of their issues, but that’s the way I was trained.

“I ran for mayor because I did sense we had some horrific problems and we were doing too much waltzing around those problems, and as an engineer and as a trained problem solver that was the frustration. I saw when I was on the City Council that I was one of seven in trying to get things done, but as mayor I was going to be one of one. I felt the times were calling me to be the leader of this city because of my engineering and my business background.”

Suttle sensed the time was right to take the leap.

“I would say I got indications. See, I’m a visionary, I’m a guy who’s got a nose for what’s over the crest in the road. I don’t have any magic crystal ball, I just have a feel. About two years before the election I could sense there was going to be a whole different scenario and so I kept my eyes and ears glued to what I thought was going to happen and then just waited for it to happen.

“Now I was preparing in the meantime, I was continuing to get myself mentally ready because I had to have it down here,” he said, tapping his belly. “I basically put the final decisions together in August right after Mike Fahey made the announcement he would not run (for reelection). That’s when I moved into a hundred percent go, 24-hours-a-day mode.”

Fahey, enjoyed an eight-year reign as mayor that during more prosperous times saw the city grow its tax base via annexation and its debt via the Qwest Center. When revenues declined, cutbacks to city services began. By the time Suttle defeated Daub in the nonpartisan general election, it was clear city revenues were on a continuing downward spiral while expenditures were going ever up.

A looming budget shortfall required some hard decisions from the new mayor.

No one knew the depth of the economic woes until after the election. Suttle said his and Fahey’s jaws dropped upon discovering the city’s sales tax stream took a major hit. The sales tax collapse, combined with rising costs and pension payouts, resulted in a $9.5 million hole for 2009 and an even larger projected deficit in 2010. By charter, the mayor was mandated to submit a balanced budget by late July.

None of the options for addressing the problems have proved pleasant or popular. All involve some level of loss or sacrifice. Suttle and his team went about devising a plan. In the lead up to the final plan, Suttle drew the ire of many when he broached cutting more city services, raising property taxes, imposing an entertainment tax, laying off city employees and enacting wage-hiring freezes.

“I could not get any sense of consensus from the Chamber, from the Council, from the public or anywhere,” he said.

At roundtable budget forums he got an earful from taxpayers. When he announced specific cuts, debate began anew. With “the clock ticking,” he said, “we rolled it out. Right or wrong, we had a balanced 2010 budget document. When it was all said and done we had to do some massaging but at least I had something out there I could stand on and felt confident about and it forced the Council, the Chamber and the public to come up with other ideas they could put it into the game.”

As things played out, the Mayor won some points and compromised on others.

“There were really some decisions I did not like to make but some good came out of that,” he said. He admitted to “a couple” sleepless nights in the deliberations.

The city also faces major financial obligations outside its general fund budget: $325 million owed on the Qwest Center; a $500 million shortfall in the police-fire pension fund; and the $1.7 billion federally-mandated sewer improvement project. He wants more fiscal accountability in how the city budgets and conducts business.

Among those advising Suttle are some young staffers not long out of college. Asked if he’s concerned about their inexperience, he said, “no, because City Hall is steeped in the status quo, City Hall needs change, it needs constructive change, so I want to bring in fresh faces and fresh ideas and fresh people in a businesslike process. You’ll see me do that in just about everything I do.”

He said his “keen eye” helps him identify top talent. “I have hired roughly a thousand people in my career, and I’ve failed a few times, I’ve hired some real dogs, but I would say 98 percent of the folks I’ve hired I’ve made good choices. I’m trained to read people, I’m trained to read situations, I’m trained to read the tea leaves and so I will only employ the best.”

One of his older hires, City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, was a protege of Suttle’s at HDR. Suttle’s still looking to fill a few positions. “I’m ready to move on and get a personnel director hired from business that can do the changes in the system here that are progressive, the same with the parks director, and I do want to fill the deputy chief of staff position.”

He termed “bothersome” the tendency by some to compare every move he makes, including personnel and salary decisions, to what Fahey did.

“Making those comparisons is useless and worthless,” he said.

Aside from budget fixes, Suttle wants to create jobs, attract new business, upgrade the city’s infrastructure and spur more development. As for what kind of job he’s doing, he’ll let the only critics who matter decide.

“I’m the actor on the stage. It’s the audience that’s going to take me and it’s the audience that’s going to judge whether or not I do a good performance.”

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