MOPOA forum responses
Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association Mayoral Candidate Forum (Jan. 14, 2013)
Thank you very much. I am, actually, not Jerry Springer…I am Brad Ashford. So, if anybody wants to throw chairs I’m not going to be responsible for any of that. I also want to thank John and MOPOA for doing this—it is an amazing turnout in January for this discussion. I would also like to thank my friends to my right and to my left. I know each one of them—and have known each one of them for a long time…many, many years. And, I am honored to be here with them. They are terrific people, great citizens, and I am very happy that we are going to be having this discussion.
Let me give you just a little background. My family started a business in Omaha called Nebraska Clothing Company in 1886; it was on 15th and Farnam. And I think back and what an influence it was on my early life, in the 50s and 60s. And some of you might remember that, because some of you are my age.
Going to downtown Omaha on a Thursday night and walking around, I remember that the sense of community was so impressive. People often ask why we have such a wonderful sense of community in Omaha? And it is because in the 50s and 60s we were all within four blocks of each other. Getting together and walking around and talking about things. I learned about being involved in the community and working on issues from my grandfather, my father, and my mother. They all helped run the store and taught me that to be in business in Omaha, especially in retail it takes getting out and meeting people and trying to make the city better. This was my youth and what has driven me into public service.
I’ve served in the legislature. This is my 15th year in the legislature. What I have learned in this time is that you really cannot govern effectively and efficiently in conflict. You can only govern effectively by bringing people together. When you push people out to the sides, their positions become extreme and it is much more difficult to solve issues. In the legislature, when we are sort of locked in a room for six months with 49 people, you have no choice but to be friends. This has been a great education. We have taken on very tough issues, and I have learned how important it is to be collaborative.
I had another great experience working with MECA when we developed the Qwest Center and revamped the riverfront and made it into what it is. And that experience [bell rings] There was no bell first, was there?…Oh, 15 seconds before the bell!… So, now I have no time. Oh my gosh!
Well…all I can say is if we can all collaborate and work together (on this bell thing) and…thank you very much, John, for that.
Questions: Each question was assigned to a different mayoral candidate followed by responses from the other candidates. These answers (aside from #3) are Brad’s follow-up responses.
Q1 Last year you called together a task force ostensibly to utilize landlords in fighting crime. As property investors we are concerned about the crime problem as anyone and would have appreciated being included in that discussion. 1) What has been your crime fighting policy over the past four years, and 2) what is your strategy for fighting crime should you be elected to another term?
First of all, I have had the opportunity to spend six years as chair of the judiciary committee—I’m in my seventh year now. We deal with criminal justice on an ongoing basis. It is critical for the city of Omaha and the legislature to work together on these issues. Certainly, that is an advantage that I have, having been in the legislature now for 15 years and addressing these issues . We have passed a combination of bills. Number one: we have increased penalties for gun-related crimes in LB 63. It’s a significant increase for penalties in imposing mandatory minimum sentences. But on the flip side I agree with Dan [Welch], the Ceasefire programs in the East are important and we need to do more of those things. And quite frankly, we need to deal with mental health issues. In the judiciary committee this year, we are focusing on mental health, early intervention with kids that exhibit those mental health problems, and getting them help as quickly as possible. We only have 33 child psychiatrists in the entire state. The mayor has a responsibility to bring people together on mental health issues.
Q2 The financial health of our city is of acute concern to our association of Omaha property owners. Driving much of the financial challenges for our city are the under funded pensions of public service unions projected to be as much a $1.2 Billion. If elected what would be your strategy for 1) solving the looming financial increase and 2) curtailing the influence of public service union.
Let me take the second question first. How would we curtail the influence of the public service unions? The best way to do that is to vote. Our elections, city elections are miserable. The turnout is miserable. What’s great about tonight, it it is indicative of a massive turnout in this city election. It’s not so much curtailing the influence of a particular group as it is the citizens deciding they are going to take over city government and the first way to do that is by voting. Less than twenty percent turnout is for city election means that certain groups do have more influence. That is not good for the city. And that’s not good for you. First of all, we need to find out what the appropriate number is in determining the gap in the pension plan. The assumption of eight percent is very generous. I have called for—and I think we should reconvene the Bates commission or an independent commission to determine what appropriate allowance should be in deciding what the deficit really is. We have to find out if it is 600 million or 1.2 billion as it is suggested in the question. Once we find that out, we will have to affect change. We have to do it through collective bargaining—that’s the law. To suggest we could do it in a year or two, it is realistically not going to happen that way. But, we have to have the political will to move forward with the better kind of plan, both for the insurance and the disability, and also for the pensions.
Q3 You have had experience working with housing issues in our city, specifically servicing with the Omaha Housing Authority. What role would the private investor play in improving the condition of housing in Omaha if you were elected?
When we did take over the housing authority a few years ago, we did have the responsibility of putting online 300 units of affordable housing to meet a federal court mandate. We did that by bringing the private sector into the process. First, by utilizing companies that had expertise in providing landlord services to the units that we developed and secondarily by going out and finding private investors through NIFA to help develop those units. It was the first time that OHA used low-income housing tax credits to help complete that task. We built the 300 affordable housing units within three years and federal court mandate was dismissed.
I just signed today a bill creating landbanks. A landbank initiative in the state of Nebraska modeled really after MECA, the organization we started to develop the Qwest Center. It will be run by a professional board made up of people like yourselves and other professionals that will run this landbanking initiative. So, the private sector can have a direct involvement in the development of housing throughout the city. And also to address the issues of demolished houses and vacant lots. This land bank will have a tremendous benefit to the city. Also, I did put in a bill the other day that no elected officials sit on the housing authority board. I think it is important that the housing authorities have professional developers, people like you running these kind of operations. So, those are some the initiatives I support and would support going forward.
Q4 We are consistently dealing with 1) unreasonable code requirements, 2) over-zealous code enforcement inspectors and 3) the lack of due process for the property owner when a property is cited. The situation is having a chilling effect on the desire to purchase and manage property in Omaha and is deleterious to property values. If elected, what would be your strategy for making the planning department, particularly the code enforcement system, more accountable to the citizens?
I think, sure, we can all do better. There is no question that all aspects of government need to be more customer-friendly. We can always improve on it. I think the people working in city government are, quite frankly, qualified people and are committed to doing a good job. We have to think more about team building. We need to work between agencies, we need to develop an ability to work together more effectively. We do need to get the planning process down, the permitting process down to a reasonable period of time: eight, nine, seven days—not eight weeks. Obviously that does not work. But, that takes getting the right people working together to attain that goal. It is the mayor’s responsibility to set that vision effectively to those employees and set the teams in motion so that they can be successful. Let them make mistakes once in awhile. And let them go out and make some mistakes. If they over-try and make a mistake and are willing to correct it, then I think your are a good manager.
I was interested in a concept called City Hall To Go. City Hall To Go is the idea of taking an old taco kind of truck and driving around town and allowing people to make their permit applications,—this is going on in Boston now— to pay their traffic tickets. And, to deal with government in their neighborhoods and on the street.
Q5 In 2011 you openly promoted and voted for Contractor Licensing requiring contractors engaged in routine activities such as re-roofing, doors, windows, decks and fencing to become licensed in order to pull permits. This licensing requirement is an additional regulatory burden on our industry. Recently you have acknowledged that contractor licensing is not working and have indicated a desire to rescind the requirement for the lower three levels of licensing. What progress has been made in eliminating this unnecessary requirement?
First of all, I would feel that having a cabinet-level position to deal with rules and regulations in government is critical. Many cities have adopted this. Many major cities have adopted bringing in a cabinet level [position]. Someone who can bring in stakeholders, work with the city council, can work with the state of Nebraska—which has a lot to say about these laws as well. I would pledge to have that kind of cabinet involvement on the regulation side. Whether it is this or any other regulation. And I think that would have a positive impact. The mayor’s role, and that’s what we are talking about here, in any of this is to look at not only stakeholders, but to work with the city council on an ongoing basis. Keep the dialog going, so we don not have these divisions. So we don’t start making city government so positional. The best solution is the solution in the center. Bringing people together to find a way to solve a problem. In my view, if we have somebody at the cabinet level, working with the city council, working with city departments, working with the stakeholders (like you who are working in this area) that we are going to have better legislation. To Dan’s [Welch] point, I do think you need to take the time. I think you have to take the time like we have public hearings on every bill that’s introduced into the legislature. But quite frankly, we need to have that kind of involvement. We need to have that kind of cabinet level position that can bring the issues to bear. So when we do something, when we legislate, when we make a decision that has consequences and affects everyone, and citizens, and everyone else involved it is an important decision, and we should take that kind of time and effort.
I am going to stand up. I am used to standing up and speaking. So here I am standing up. You know it is good. …He was mayor of Cincinnati. Don’t count the time on this. We’re joking.
During my career, I have been asked to be involved in many different things and part of it was government. When I was first elected to office in 1986, the city was losing presence. Con Agra was about to leave the city. We passed LB775 and it kept Con Agra here. We kept Union Pacific here. We brought new business to Nebraska. We have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in this state because of that legislation. And, we did it because we brought people together within three months to pass a bill with Kay Orr and the legislature. It was a huge deal, and it saved our state and our economy. It was very, very important.
I was asked to be a part of the initial MECA board because we wanted to get back to the river. We wanted to get back to river because quite frankly what we were dealing with was an old smelting plant. You couldn’t walk down there. I used to jog down by the UP yards when they were vacant and the odors would emanate from the ground. We went around the city and we asked do you want us to build a convention center arena?
During this time and for many years before and after, I also worked on Old Market development. At the very beginning it was all retail and essentially the only business activity in Downtown Omaha. It was an honor to be a part of redeveloping this area. Through hard work, we brought the Qwest Center in on-time and on-budget. There is no question that it has transformed our city. It was a team effort, but I am very proud to be a part of that team.
The Housing Authority was in difficult trouble when I was asked to come on board. We had a federal order mandate to build 300 housing units online within three years, and we didn’t have the money to do it. So we went to the private sector. We went to the private investors. We went to the landlords. And we said, “Help me get this done!” On October 1, 2006, the date the mandate required us to have those 300 units online, Judge Strahm dismissed the lawsuit because we succeeded. We did not succeed because of me. We succeeded because of our team. We succeeded because we brought people together collaboratively to make a difference and to do something that was meaningful for Omaha. We can do so much better on housing. We can do so much better on education. It is the mayor’s role to bring people together, to work with the city council and on those contracts. They did as good as they can do. They really did. It is tough work to do a labor contract. I spent years negotiating these contracts. They deserve credit and The Mayor deserves credit. The City Council deserves credit. But, what we have to do, like we do in the legislature, in the Unicameral non-partisan legislature, we need to find solutions in the center. Not on positional polls. As mayor that is what I would pledge to you. I would take it on like any other project that I have been asked to do over the last 25 years. I appreciate very much for having this event and I appreciate you all for being here tonight.