Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert proposed an unorthodox approach Monday to running the City Planning Department.
She named the acting director, James Thele, to become the planning director. He would form what Stothert described as a leadership team with a retired planning director, Steve Jensen, with whom the city would contract as a paid consultant, if the City Council approves.
Jensen would be paid up to $100,000 a year, with no benefits. He would continue to receive his pension of about $115,000 a year.
Thele's salary will be $140,000 a year. That's $40,000 less than the salary of the previous planning director, Rick Cunningham.
Combined, the two men's pay would be higher than Cunningham's salary. But Stothert said Thele's salary and Jensen's contract could be paid within the current Planning Department budget.
Stothert said Thele and Jensen would form “a great team” that would move the city forward.
She said Jensen brings unmatched experience, talent and the respect of architects, builders, engineers and others.
“I could have searched the entire country and not found anybody more qualified and respected than Steve Jensen,” Stothert said.
She had named Thele acting planning director in June.
Thele, 65, has served in a number of positions in Omaha city government, including as director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development in 1979, and later as assistant planning director, according to a press release from the Mayor's Office.
Thele's responsibilities included managing the city's housing and community development program and administering federal grants.
Jensen, 61, retired as planning director in 2009. He went into private business with the Omaha-based planning and urban design firm Jensen Consulting.
Jensen said Monday he had offered to help the city in part out of concern that the combination of a nationwide search for a new planning director and Thele's potential retirement could create more turmoil in Omaha urban planning.
“I offered to help move things forward and not let things drift,” Jensen said. “I think the world of James Thele and think he'll do a great job. I'm glad to help in any way I can.”
The City Council would have to approve Jensen's contract each year.
The Mayor's Office had raised the idea with council members of changing the city ordinance that forbids the full-time employment of a retiree receiving a city pension.
That met strong objections from several council members, including Pete Festersen, Ben Gray and Aimee Melton.
“Steve Jensen was a very good planning director, and it would be good to have him involved,” Festersen said. “But I'd be opposed to setting a precedent in city code to allow a city employee to work full time for the city while receiving a city pension.”
Festersen, the council president, said a strong majority of the council opposed that idea.
As for the proposed consultant-contract arrangement with Jensen, Festersen said council members may have similar concerns.
Gray called Stothert's current proposal “a little bit unorthodox, a different way of doing things.” But that doesn't necessarily mean it's bad, he said.
“I don't see any reason at this point not to support it,” Gray said.
Melton said she wouldn't vote to change an ordinance.
“But approving a contract? That's pretty standard,” she said. “I think the mayor should be able to control who she has work for her.”
Councilman Franklin Thompson said: “Under normal circumstances I'd say no, but the Planning Department is in a condition where we really need an expert. (Jensen) is the one who can really bring some stability. I'm willing to give it a try for that first year and see how it goes.”
World-Herald staff writer Matt Wynn contributed to this report.