The Omaha City Council's Tuesday vote to fill an open seat on the MECA board will mark the end of one of the most publicized — and competitive — processes to fill a seat on a city appointed board in recent history.
Typically, vacancies on many public boards are filled quickly, without much fanfare or competition. But the resignation of Jamie Gutierrez Mora from the prominent Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority board, following weeks of media coverage over her eligibility to serve, made the seat a hot ticket.
The position attracted the attention of 11 would-be board members, along with an endorsement from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and several business and community leaders. And while some of the four finalists had considered serving on the board in the past, others said the public discussions prompted by Gutierrez Mora's departure made them think they could be a good fit for MECA.
The five-member board oversees the CenturyLink Center, TD Ameritrade Park and the Civic Auditorium.
Developer Jay Noddle, who helped spearhead the development of Aksarben Village, Gallup's riverfront headquarters and other projects across Omaha, was one of the first contenders to get a public mention. He received an endorsement from the chamber and several well-known Omahans.
Noddle said he's had a longstanding interest in MECA's operations but also was recruited by people from the chamber and others in business, including philanthropist Ken Stinson of Kiewit Corp. Noddle made a few calls on his own, asking others if they thought he'd be a useful addition to the board.
The response, Noddle said, was positive. Though serving on the board would mean Noddle would likely have to avoid launching any major downtown projects, he said he considers it a worthy risk.
“There's a lot to be said for having people helping to steer an organization who have dealt with what we might be asking others to do,” he said.
Frank Hayes, a certified public accountant, said he also got a few calls from people asking him to consider putting himself in the running. After running his business for 30 years and working with several organizations, Hayes said he thought he'd be able to provide valuable financial expertise to the board.
“The thing I would bring to the table is this understanding of the financial aspects of MECA in a way that I could communicate not only with the board,” he said, “but if anyone needed information outside the board, I could talk intelligently and clearly about it.”
Hayes said he'd also like to see the board become more diverse.
It's an interest shared by another finalist, philanthropist Susie Buffett.
Buffett, who has been involved with a long list of community groups and also serves on the Omaha Airport Authority, said she sees MECA as a major influence on Omaha's development. She'd never planned to get involved with the organization but began thinking about it once the seat was open.
With Gutierrez Mora gone, Buffett noted, the board was once again an all-male group. She said she sees the other three finalists as good contenders for the board, but believes it could use a new perspective.
“The last time I checked, the city is half female,” she said. “I think the City Council should at least have options that are not all white men.”
Paul Smith, vice chairman of energy company Tenaska and chief executive of Tenaska Capital Management, said business demands had kept him from pursuing a MECA seat in the past. But over the last few weeks, calls started coming in from friends, businesspeople and council members, asking him to consider the position.
Smith said the board needs members with significant business experience who could keep Omaha competitive with venues in Des Moines, Kansas City, Lincoln and other communities.
“I think my business skills, as a CEO who has run a large-scale, national business in a competitive environment, are particularly useful for an institution like this,” he said.
All four plan to be at Tuesday's City Council meeting for a public hearing and the council's vote. It's an unusual step. Typically, the selections for boards are made behind the scenes without a lengthy public process.
Still, at least one of the early candidates for the open seat said he's unhappy with how the council has handled the current vacancy.
Cliff Herd, a former City Council member, said the council needs a more established process for announcing and filling open seats on boards. After putting his name in for the position, Herd said some council members told him he was too late — even though there was no formal timeline.
“There's just no consistency,” he said, “and I just think that for this type of a deal that's not the way it should be.”