City of Omaha seeks second lobbyist to work State Legislature in Lincoln

Current lobbyist unsure of reason; Stothert says additional lobbyists have proven helpful

By: - September 21, 2022 4:00 am
Drone Shot of Nebraska State Capitol at Sunset

The Sower rises above The Nebraska State Capitol in downtown Lincoln. (Getty Images)

LINCOLN — The City of Omaha is advertising to hire a second, “supplemental” lobbyist to work alongside longtime city lobbyist Jack Cheloha.

Cheloha, who has held the job for 28 years, says he’s “in the dark” about the request. But Mayor Jean Stothert, who initiated the effort, said hiring an additional lobbyist during the last session for bills related to the city’s streetcar initiative was helpful.

“We learned there is a benefit to having additional support in the Legislature,” Stothert said.

Just how much an additional lobbyist will cost the city was unclear. The budget category that funds services such as lobbying was doubled in the new city budget, from $55,000 to $110,000, but the request for bids says the salary is negotiable.

Lobbyist paid $160,000

Cheloha, a 57-year-old lawyer and native of Columbus, is paid $160,000 a year to pitch the city’s positions at the State Capitol. He serves as a deputy city attorney when the Nebraska Legislature is not in session.

The request for the new lobbyist came from the Omaha city attorney, who works under the mayor. Cheloha has traditionally represented views of the Omaha City Council as well as the Mayor’s Office, unless the mayor has a different opinion on a bill.

Postcards seeking bids were recently mailed to lobbyists who work the State Capitol, which one veteran lobbyist described as unusual.

Jack Cheloha
Jack Cheloha, City of Omaha lobbyist (Courtesy of Jack Cheloha)

Bids are due Sept. 28, and an “evaluation committee” of city staff will screen the applicants. The mayor will approve a finalist. All city contracts of more than $20,000 must be approved by the City Council, so it’s likely the council will get to weigh in on this issue.

City Attorney Matt Kuhse said it’s hoped to have someone hired by November given that the Nebraska Legislature’s next session begins in January.

When asked about the need for an additional lobbyist, Pete Festersen, council president, deferred questions to the Mayor’s Office.

Additional lobbyists hired in past

It won’t be the first time the city has hired additional lobbyists, but those hires were usually temporary, part-time jobs, and often happened when the council and mayor didn’t agree on an issue.

Cheloha said if there was a disagreement between a majority of the council and mayor, he would lobby the council’s position, while another lobbyist would be hired to provide the mayor’s point of view. Casino gambling, he said, was one example of such a difference of opinion.

The city sometimes hires additional lobbyists for more persuasive firepower — as it did in the 2022 legislative session.

Veteran lobbyist Don Wesely, a former state senator and former Lincoln mayor, said his firm was once hired by the city to lobby for a bill allowing cities to levy an additional 1/2-cent sales tax.

During the 2022 session, the Omaha lobbying firm of Kelley Plucker was paid $18,000, according to state reports, which stated that the purpose was to lobby bills related to sports arena financing and distribution of COVID-19 recovery funds.

Transition needed?

There’s some speculation around the State Capitol that the city is seeking a second lobbyist because Cheloha is nearing retirement and a transition needs to begin.

For his part, Cheloha said he has considered retirement “down the road” — he becomes eligible next month under the city’s retirement plan — but he said the effort to hire a second lobbyist “may expedite it.”

“I plan to stay on for the 2023 session and then I’ll see where it goes from there,” he said.

The request for proposals (RFP) states that the new, supplemental lobbyist will work “under the direction and supervision of the City Attorney.” The position, the RFP states, will be in addition to lobbying activities conducted by the city lobbyist.

The RFP includes a warning: If the city became short of money, the position could be eliminated. The RFP also indicates the city has the option of hiring more than one supplemental lobbyist.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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