Omaha City Council President Ben Gray talks with KVNO News
June 18th, 2015
KVNO: Alright, we’re sitting down here with new city council president Ben Gray. Thank you so much for joining us today, Councilman.
Gray: No problem.
KVNO: When you were nominated and you gave your speech this past Tuesday, you said that there are some pretty pressing issues facing the city right now. What are some of those issues in your mind?
Gray: Well, number one is we’ve got to do something to address poverty. We’ve got to stop paying lip service to it. We’ve got to stop doing a band-aid approach, and we have to look at a more consistent, ongoing, long-term effort to address poverty in our community. We sit right now, as we sit today, black children specifically…of the top 100 cities, we’re number one in terms of poverty with black children. That ought to be unacceptable to all of us, and it’s not much better for any other ethnic group that has economic challenges.
Secondly, our infrastructure, in particular our streets, I don’t know when was the last time I saw the streets this bad with potholes. I know my constituents in North Omaha believe, rightfully so, that not much of anything has been done with the majority of streets in North Omaha. But I can say to my constituents in North Omaha and the constituents of the rest of the city, we have a city-wide problem. It’s acute in North Omaha, but we have a citywide problem.
We just have an infrastructure issue that we can’t continue to keep talking about it. We have to put a plan together to address it. We received a briefing this last week that talked about how much it’s going to cost if we begin now and it’s in the $200 million range, or close to it. If we don’t do anything, by 2050, we’re going to have a billion dollar problem, or more than a billion dollar problem. I think government has to exist to address these problems as they come up and deal with them and bite the bullet and do what’s necessary to at least begin the process of long term efforts to deal with our street problem.
KVNO: Getting back to the first issue, you said we’re the number one city for black children being in poverty. We know we need to address that, but what are some of your proposals of how you think we should do that?
Gray: Well, first of all, we’ve got a number of projects under way in this city. We’ve got a number of projects around us, not necessarily in this city. So there are tremendous opportunities for contracts for small and emerging businesses. There’s [sic] opportunities for those who provide supplies and other types of equipment for new construction. Those are really good opportunities, but in addition to that, among the things I think need to occur is that—there’s a disconnect right now, and even as much as we try through social media and all the other things—there’s a disconnect between jobs that are available and people who are looking.
There’s also a learning curve that needs to take place with residents and constituents who are looking for work. In some instances they need to upgrade their skills. This counsel has done a really good job I think, and the mayor as well, has done a really good job of connecting with Metro Community College and others to provide some of the necessary training that a lot of our unemployed, and under-employed, individuals need to take advantage of.
KVNO: When we’re talking about violence and crime in the city, do you think Omaha has a problem with violence and crime?
Gray: You know every city has a problem with violence and crime; it’s just a matter of what we do about it. In our community, I think we have a police force that really wants to engage in serious community policing. The kinds of things you have seen occur across the country, have also occurred here. Not in a major way, but this police chief, when he saw inappropriate or questionable criminal behavior on behalf of his officers, he acted very quickly. And as a result I think that sent a message to rest of the police force as well.
But we also have police officers, Carrie Orozco being one of them, who engage intensely in the community to try and make a difference and try to develop this concept of community policing and I think our police chief is dedicated to that. I think this council and this mayor is dedicated to continuing the community policing efforts that we think are going to benefit the community long term.
KVNO: Your relationship with [Mayor Jean Stothert] in the media has not necessarily been the smoothest. How do you perceive [your relationship with Mayor Stothert] today? And how do you see it moving forward?
Gray: In moving forward, my intentions are to continue to work as closely as possible with the mayor. There are going to be times when we are going to disagree. That’s just a matter of politics and a matter of how you see things. So there will be some disagreements. I hope those disagreements won’t be as acrimonious as the previous ones have been. But there’s going to be some disagreements from time to time. But hopefully we can work together because we really need to address poverty in this community. We really need to address the streets in this community. And we need to not pay lip service to it, but really act upon it. Sometimes we’re going to have a difference of opinion as it relates to that but in the end I’m hoping we can continue to develop and strengthen the relationship. Hopefully that will happen.
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