‘I hate seeing that empty seat’: South Omaha looks to move on after Palermo’s rise, fall

Vinny Palermo was an unknown. Then he was South Omaha’s top city politician. Now he sits in jail, as residents and the Omaha City Council seek a fresh start.

An email that landed in Vinny Palermo’s inbox on May 20 asked the Omaha city councilman to fill out a brief survey on “professionalism in local government.”

The researcher who sent the request received an automatic reply explaining that it would be passed along to city staff since “Councilmember Palermo is currently out of the office.”

Palermo is most certainly out of the office – he’s an inmate in the Saunders County Jail, where he’s lived since being arrested April 21 and where he now awaits trial on nine federal charges tied to his alleged involvement in a public corruption scheme.

The councilman, anonymous in South Omaha’s political circles eight years ago, parlayed deep community connections into a seat on the city’s top board. Now, his constituents interviewed by the Flatwater Free Press want him to fade away, making way for a new leader with less baggage.

Palermo’s six-year tenure on the city council is likely to end next week after his colleagues pass a measure that would boot the Democrat off the council. 

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican, has called on him to resign. So have a handful of regular Omahans who emailed his work inbox telling him to quit.

Palermo didn’t see those emails, the researcher’s email on professionalism or any others – the city disabled his password and cut his mobile access in May. 

But he has kept his seat, collecting taxpayer-funded paychecks from his jail cell, a decision that has left South Omaha without a representative for more than three months.  

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“I hate seeing that empty seat. We have no voice,” said Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan, a South Omaha activist and former Republican political candidate.

South 24th Street, the main drag in South Omaha. The area is represented on the Omaha City Council by Vinny Palermo, who since April has been arrested and jailed on nine federal charges. Even while in a jail cell, Palermo has refused to relinquish his seat on the council, continuing to collect city paychecks. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

‘A buddy to a lot of people’

When Palermo first ran for public office in South Omaha, he had no political reputation – unheralded even within a Democratic party establishment that has long held sway in the neighborhood, according to the area’s longtime city councilman.

But many South Omaha residents did know his name, said former City Councilman Garry Gernandt. They had seen it painted in white on the sides of his red “Vinny’s Tree Service” trucks zooming around town.  


Palermo is a South Omaha boy, graduating from Omaha South High School and then serving in the Navy before moving back and starting his tree-cutting business in the late 1990s.

An attorney for Palermo did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The community that raised him has long been known for blue-collar work and blue politics. 

Beginning in the 1880s, waves of European and then Latin American immigrants settled in South Omaha to work in meatpacking and other union trades. The American Legion post on S. 21st Street is known as the “melting pot” to represent the area’s history of diverse in-migration. 

Today, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one in the council district, which stretches from Bellevue north nearly to Center Street, and from the Missouri River west to 96th Street.

Palermo’s first political office all but fell into his lap. Tony Vargas left his seat on the Omaha Public Schools board to run, successfully, for the Nebraska Legislature. Vargas, now running for Congress, didn’t return emails seeking comment for this story.

Only one candidate ran to replace Vargas on the OPS board: The tree-trimming business owner. 

Palermo didn’t stay long. Just four months into his first term on the school board, he filed to run for city council. 

Gernandt, a councilman since 2001, had decided not to seek reelection in 2017, setting off one of the most competitive races in District 4’s history. 

Palermo and fellow Democrat Jim Rogers emerged in a dead heat from the primary.  

Rogers, the former director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, had plenty of experience working on campaigns. He picked up Gernandt’s endorsement, won over trade unions and other influential donors and doubled Palermo’s fundraising during the four-month campaign. 

But Palermo had uncommon charisma, said longtime South Omaha activist Ben Sazalar, as well as a vast personal network that included some of the area’s most prominent families.

South Omaha political activist Ben Salazar poses for a photo in the South Omaha Library. Photo by Jeremy Turley for the Flatwater Free Press

“He had this confidence and air about him that he could handle things,” Salazar said.

Palermo probably scored some votes through longtime South High friends, said Rogers, who attended the smaller Bryan High School. Barrientos-Patlan described Palermo as “a buddy to a lot of people.”

Many of Palermo’s strongest proponents came from the Martinez and Gonzalez families — two large Mexican-American families with deeply rooted police ties, Rogers said. Palermo’s then-fiance Aubrey was born into the Martinez family.

Aubrey Palermo, who has filed for divorce from Vinny Palermo, didn’t respond to an interview request. 

During the general election campaign, Palermo also gained the support of Barrientos-Patlan, the Republican who finished third in the primary. Barrientos-Patlan is herself from a large Mexican-American South Omaha family. 

Palermo’s campaign “was a well-oiled machine with someone else’s grease,” said Jonathan Rentería, an activist who unsuccessfully tried to recall the councilman this year.

Winning the blessing of big families can swing a tight race in a community like South Omaha, Rogers said. 

Rogers was “a complete unknown” to the area’s Hispanic community who seemed “more like a clerk than a leader,” said Salazar, who voted for Palermo in 2017. 

Palermo likely benefited at the ballot box from having a Spanish-sounding surname since many South Omaha voters are of Hispanic descent, Salazar noted. 

(Palermo and his family changed their last name from Zaracki in 2004 for family reasons, according to legal records reviewed by the Flatwater Free Press.)

Rogers estimates that he knocked on 5,000 doors in South Omaha. 

But Gernandt remembers that Palermo had “more face time in public” than his opponent. Palermo also had a strong volunteer base that rallied around him at events and held signs for him on bridges in South Omaha, recalled Roger Garcia, a member of the Douglas County Board. 

Palermo billed himself as an “everyday, go-to-work South Omaha guy going out door knocking” during an interview with the Omaha-World Herald a month before the May election. 

On election night, after the district’s highest voter turnout in 15 years, the eyebrow-raising result: Palermo beat his well-funded, establishment-connected opponent by 8 points.

Once in office, Palermo forged a reputation for supporting programs like youth sports organization Police Athletics for Community Engagement (PACE) and for his expertise in watch-dogging the city’s Public Works Department, where he had once worked. 

But he also landed in hot water two years after being elected, when news broke that he had for years failed to pay taxes on his business or file income tax returns. Palermo pleaded guilty and got four years of probation but avoided prison time.

Palermo weathered calls then for his resignation and ran for a second term in 2021. This time, he got the financial backing from trade unions, developers and contractors, support that had gone to Rogers last time. 

He cruised to victory over Republican Barrientos-Patlan, who said she felt betrayed by Palermo after his tax mishap. 


As his council tenure continued, Palermo became increasingly hard to reach, both Gernandt and Barrientos-Patlan told the Flatwater Free Press. The councilman stayed mostly out of the spotlight until FBI agents searched his home last December.

Palermo’s April indictment on corruption charges came as a shock to even his detractors in South Omaha. 

“He has told me to my face that being on the council was his dream job,” Gernandt said. “Now it appears to be a nightmare.”

An empty chair at council

Three days after his arrest, District 4 resident Sam Scheen sent Palermo an email.

The subject line read, “Time To Resign.” The body text said, “That’s it, that’s the email.”

Scheen’s sentiment was echoed by constituents interviewed by the Flatwater Free Press as well as politicians, mostly Republicans, including Mayor Jean Stothert and several of Palermo’s council colleagues

The push to get Palermo to quit came after a grand jury indicted the councilman and two ex-police officers in a complex public corruption case linked to two well-known nonprofits.

Federal prosecutors say former Omaha police officers Johnny Palermo and Rich Gonzalez defrauded the Latino Peace Officers’ Association and PACE for their own personal benefit.

Vinny Palermo, 50, allegedly accepted kickbacks from the ex-cops, including a paid luxury trip to Las Vegas, in exchange for awarding the nonprofits funding through city grants. He’s also charged with improperly accepting gifts, including discounted work on his backyard pool, from contractors who do business with the city.

Johnny Palermo and Vinny Palermo are not related.

Council members stripped Palermo of his vice president position, but decided the city charter doesn’t allow them to oust their indicted co-worker until he has missed three months of meetings — a requirement met when Palermo didn’t show on July 25. 

The council will vote Aug. 1 on a resolution to remove Palermo from office. 

In the three-plus months he’s sat in jail, Palermo has been paid about $9,600 to be a city councilman, according to paystubs obtained by the Flatwater Free Press. 

Revelers pack South 24th Street during the 2023 Cinco de Mayo parade. Many are constituents of Vinny Palermo, the Omaha city councilman arrested and jailed since April. Those interviewed by the Flatwater Free Press say they have tired of having no representation on the council since Palermo’s arrest. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

South Omahans interviewed say they are frustrated by the lack of representation caused by Palermo refusing to resign through the spring and summer. 

“I’m sad about how arrogant he is for not stepping down to let somebody else come in and help South Omaha,” Barrientos-Patlan said. “That would be a true leader.” 

Garcia, the Democratic county board member who represents South Omaha, said Palermo’s constituents are suffering by having “no active voice” during council discussions that will shape the city’s billion-dollar budget.

For Salazar, the true cost of Palermo’s prolonged absence will be felt in public money and development that may not come to the historically underfunded South Omaha. 

“We don’t have someone … pounding the podium saying we should have and deserve better and more services in South Omaha,” Salazar said. 

Palermo also hasn’t been available to help constituents in need or to perform more mundane duties. Garcia and west Omaha Councilman Brinker Harding said they and other local officials have tried to pick up the slack. 

Harding has done weekly video calls with District 4 residents to discuss the council’s business and the plan to replace Palermo. 

The Republican councilman said, with Palermo absent, he attended events at Brown and Upland parks in South Omaha to announce city-funded improvements. 

Palermo has missed votes on alcohol licenses for bars and restaurants in his district, like the Grover Inn and the Firewater Grille. 

Palermo’s absence has also posed uncommon challenges for the council that have burdened the whole city, Harding said.

Many measures that come before the seven-member council require four votes to pass. With Palermo gone, it has been harder to reach that threshold during the past three months, Harding said. 

The council has tabled more discussions as a result, Harding said. It’s become less efficient.

South Omaha’s politicos don’t agree on who should succeed Palermo if he gets bounced next week, but they mostly object to the process by which his replacement would be selected. 

The remaining members of the council would select a new District 4 representative from a pool of applicants, per the city charter. This process is expected to take two months, Harding said.

Salazar said it’s “fundamentally undemocratic” to deprive South Omaha voters of the right to elect the person who will serve them for the next two years. 

Gernandt, Barrientos-Patlan and a handful of other District 4 residents have announced their intention to seek Palermo’s seat.

Salazar’s hoping the district will get its first Latino council member. 

“If they’re going to represent my community, I want them to smell like corn tortillas,” he said.

When asked what he’s looking for in a post-Palermo council member, Rentería, the community organizer, said, “Decency. Just decency and empathy.”

By Jeremy Turley

Jeremy Turley covers the Omaha metro area. He worked at newspapers across the Midwest before moving to Nebraska. Most recently, he shivered through several frigid winters in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he covered state government and the COVID-19 pandemic for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and a native of suburban Chicago. His hobbies include disc golfing, collecting campaign buttons and using too many em dashes — or so his editors say.


Thanks for a great article. The title was fabulous and the content interesting. Palermo needs to go and I am following this closely as a SOG. I laughed at Salazars quote and completely agree. Keep up the good work!



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