Mayor Gets Contract-Negotiating Power Back After Omaha City Council Vote

OMAHA, NE &#8211 Mayor Jean Stothert will get a chance to fulfill her campaign promise to negotiate better city labor contracts.

Tuesday, the Omaha City Council voted unanimously to return contract negotiating authority to the Mayor’s Office, reversing its 2011 move to strip that power from the office.

“Mayor Stothert has run on this issue, campaigned on it, and has requested this,” Councilman Chris Jerram said. “And, I think, in the spirit of working with her, this is a good opportunity to allow her the opportunity that she seeks.”

Rescinding the mayor’s power to negotiate labor deals — and fully returning that responsibility to the council — ended a policy that had been in place since 1973, the year that Edward Zorinsky was elected mayor.

The City Attorney’s Office said the City Charter grants the council authority to adopt and change employee pay plans and fringe benefits. In 2011, council members Stothert, Jerram, Franklin Thompson, Pete Festersen and Tom Mulligan voted to strip Mayor Jim Suttle of negotiating power, rebuking him for his handling of a controversial fire union contract.

“I am thankful that the City Council has the confidence in me to return negotiating authority to the mayor,” Stothert said in a statement. “When the previous council voted to take that responsibility away from the mayor, it was a vote of no-confidence in the previous administration.”

Stothert, Festersen and Jerram had formed a negotiating team that reached the city’s biggest agreement with the firefighters union. That contract, which expires in 2014, cut some health care expenses and put the troubled police and fire pension fund on a path to solvency.

Stothert told The World-Herald last week that she would preserve attorney Mark McQueen’s independent negotiator position and ask the council to maintain its labor negotiating committee.

“There’s unanimous support here today to start anew with a fresh round of negotiations, but stay in close contact and monitor them closely,” Festersen said.

Stothert says her goals to eliminate the restaurant tax and reduce property tax rates would require long-term efforts to streamline city operations, as well as union agreements that reduce health care costs and stabilize city pension funds.

The bulk of the city’s operational budget is tied up in employee wages and benefits, some of which are codified in union contracts and subject to labor negotiations.

“When we originally took back this negotiating power, I was always hesitant about it because I feel that it should be in the Mayor’s Office,” Thompson said. “My ‘yes’ vote back at that time was temporary. … It’s better government to go ahead and have one person negotiate as opposed to seven.”

From The Omaha World-Herald