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Where community, neighborhood and representative democracy meet

The heartbeat of any strong neighborhood is committed residents taking positive action to improve conditions.  The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance brings together the leaders of several neighborhood associations in the South O district, together with representatives of police, community, and political entities serving the area, to focus on doing what’s necessary to keep the neighborhoods safe, clean, and welcoming to residents, business and property owners, and visitors.  My story appeared a couple years ago in El Perico.

Where community, neighborhood and representative Ddmocracy meet

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (SONA) meetings at the Omaha Police Department’s Southeast Precinct bring together neighborhood association leaders with public servants for a Frank Capraesque community forum.

It’s classic American democracy in action. Dozens of participants at an August 5 meeting listened to reports from Southeast Precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez, mayoral liaison Roger Garcia, Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt and various SONA members. Anyone who wanted an opportunity to speak was afforded the chance.

Violent crime, graffiti, robberies, burglaries and drug-prostitution activity have been on the rise this summer, Gonzalez reported. Some neighborhood association presidents confirmed the same, posing specific questions about police response.

Frank, yet measured discussion ensued for two hours, even on hot button topics like Mayor Jim Suttle’s proposed tax hikes. Gernandt, who represents south Omaha’s District 4, addressed the city’s budget woes, fielding questions and recommendations. Neighborhood leaders also announced activities happening in their neighborhoods.

SONA serves as sounding board, network, organizer and catalyst for neighborhood residents and local government in addressing issues and sharing news.

“The advantage is anytime you bring people together to share information, best practices or activities then it can spur ideas that enhance neighborhoods” said Hanscom Park Neighborhood Association president Mike Battershell. He said SONA neighborhoods like his often “team up” to tackle cleanup and beautification projects.

SONA members are volunteer activists and advocates dedicated to making their community more livable. President Duane Brooks said, “It’s a labor of love.”

Battershell said he finds satisfaction in helping affect change in “my own backyard.”

For a neighborhood association, especially a small one, having its lone voice heard above the din is difficult. SONA amplifies things with its coalition of 45 neighborhood associations and community service organizations. Together, they raise the roof and speak as one unified voice to public-private partners and members.

“If you only have a hundred households, you don’t carry the same weight or clout with city hall or the state legislature that you do with more people, a larger constituency base,” said SONA member Don Preister. He should know. He served the interests of south Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature. He currently serves on the Bellevue City Council.

Back in the ‘90s Preister set in motion events that led to SONA.

“It was apparent we needed a greater area of south Omaha represented,” he said. “If one part of south Omaha had a problem then if we stood united we could bring more resources, more people, and we could get more city, county, state assistance. I invited all of the neighborhood association officers to a meeting and asked what they thought of the idea of us all banding together. It was unanimous, so we formed the organization.”

Originally called SONAR (South Omaha Neighborhood Action and Response), the group merged with the South Omaha Neighborhood Association to form SONA.

By whatever name it’s gone, Anita Rojas has seen the power of collective action. Her home looked out on the abandoned Wilson packing plant, a massive eye sore that posed safety problems and drove down property values. As Highland South Neighborhood Association president, she joined SONA’s efforts in getting the city to clear and abate the site. Today, it’s home to the $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center.  She said SONA helped turn a once “hopeless” scenario into something “beautiful.”

Currently, SONA’s Preister and others are working with public and private interests in the search for a south Omaha lead staging area. SONA members contributed to the South Omaha Development Project master plan. Some, like Preister, are working on its implementation. SONA’s keeping a close eye on the project, all part of holding themselves, project leaders and elected representatives accountable.

“SONA’s been an excellent conduit for sharing information, for uniting and bringing additional resources together,” said Preister. “Prior to SONA it was rare that elected officials would be a part of these meetings and activities but since the forming we’ve had the mayor attend somewhat regularly. We have state senators and city councilmen attend nearly all the meetings. We have the ear of elected officials, we have the ear of business owners for cooperating and being good neighbors and working with neighborhoods. We’ve got action on code enforcement.

“It was largely through SONA the police decided they could do something about graffiti. We worked with the police, we worked with prosecutors, then we got the judges on board and they recognized this is a crime against our community and the neighborhoods. Now we’re getting prosecutions.”

Gernandt regards SONA as a vital collaborative between government and citizenry:

“What better place could an elected official go to get 30 leaders of various neighborhood groups and organizations in one room for information and feedback? It’s a very open forum. If there’s anything the alliance can do to help government and if there’s anything government can do to help the alliance, we have the ability to make that connection.”

It’s not about bashing elected officials or making complaints.

“One thing SONA has done exceptionally well is not focus only on the problems,” said Battershell. “We’re as much about solutions and responding to neighborhood needs and being a pro-active partner with the city rather than only calling when there’s problems.”

Gernandt appreciates SONA’s approach, saying, “This group has never played the blame game. It’s always had constructive criticism.”


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