North Omaha is the ‘biggest loser’ in feud between mayor and councilwoman, advocates say

“Thank you, smartass.” Those three words pushed a feud between Omaha’s mayor and North Omaha’s city councilwoman into public view. But it’s a longer story, some North O leaders say – one that’s holding North Omaha back.

The Omaha City Council’s Feb. 6 meeting started like any other. Then, barely five minutes in, it turned tense with three words: “Thank you, smartass.”

Councilwoman Juanita Johnson said she was “in line” with the comment because City Planning Director Dave Fanslau had spoken to her in a disrespectful tone.

Fanslau rose from his seat behind the council, murmured “Good luck” to his colleagues and left the chamber.

The interaction set off an exchange of strongly worded letters that represents the most public blowout in a years-long dispute between Omaha’s mayor and North Omaha’s councilwoman – a dispute that some North Omaha advocates worry is inhibiting progress in their historically underserved part of town.

On Feb. 9, Mayor Jean Stothert wrote that, because of Johnson’s unacceptable behavior, staff other than department directors would be excused from closed-door committee meetings with council members. 

Days later, Johnson sent a note to city department directors asserting that she, the council’s only Black member, receives unequal treatment compared to her colleagues. 

Councilwoman Juanita Johnson won election to the Omaha City Council in 2021 after defeating longtime Councilman Ben Gray. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

The absence of some city employees from certain meetings will have little functional impact, said Council President Pete Festersen. But some council members worry any further barriers placed between staffers and the council would pose bigger problems.

The public fracas follows clashes between Stothert and Johnson on issues ranging from the proposed streetcar to the mayor’s political appointments.

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Their offices sit just a floor apart in City Hall, but the pair seldom meet face to face. Johnson is the only council member who doesn’t have regular private meetings with Stothert.

Community leaders in North Omaha – constituents of both Stothert and Johnson – hold varying perspectives on the causes of the feud. 

Several say the mayor is perpetuating a longstanding trend of Omaha’s predominately white power center excluding the city’s Black community.

Two – including the incumbent North Omaha councilman who Johnson defeated – say Johnson’s brash style and antagonistic approach to politics is mostly to blame for the unnecessary conflicts with Stothert and city staff.

Others think both officials are letting a petty interpersonal rivalry get in the way of their jobs.

But nearly all of the half dozen community leaders who spoke with the Flatwater Free Press agreed on one point: The infighting doesn’t serve North Omaha.

The City Hall discord pulls focus away from the policies and developments that neighborhoods a few miles north of City Hall need to thrive, said Dorothy Johnson, a North Omaha native and businesswoman who is not related to the council member.

“We have so much power in Omaha, and it’s wasted on personal vendettas that will never drive the community work forward,” she said.

A contentious relationship

The heated interactions between Stothert and Johnson began years before the latter ascended to elected office in 2021, Stothert told the Flatwater Free Press.

Mayor Jean Stothert

The Republican mayor recalled a 2016 town hall meeting in North Omaha where Johnson, then heading up her local neighborhood association, “came busting up to me, yelling at me about something.” 

“I remember I told her … ‘use your inside voice,’ like you might say at a grade school,” Stothert said in an interview.

Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story. During a short phone conversation, the Democratic councilwoman said the news media have promoted “a one-sided narrative” and that it wasn’t worth her energy to comment further.

The first major political dust-up between the two came when Stothert tried to appoint Ben Gray to the Municipal Land Bank board a few months after Johnson unseated the longtime councilman.

Johnson protested the appointment, noting that Stothert didn’t consult her before nominating her one-time opponent for the position.

After the City Council sank Gray’s nomination, Stothert released a statement saying that appointments “should never be influenced by personal grudges.”

Johnson has frequently cast dissenting votes on projects supported by the mayor, including the proposed streetcar and the relocation of the downtown library.

In a note to city department directors earlier this month, Councilwoman Juanita Johnson asserted that she receives unequal treatment from her colleagues. Johnson, the only Black member of the Omaha City Council, represents a historically underserved part of the city. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

The two officials occasionally met in private after Johnson joined the council, but the get-togethers stopped after a particularly acrimonious May 2022 meeting, the mayor said. (Johnson is invited to private briefings where other council members are present, Stothert said.)

Emails obtained by Flatwater revealed growing tensions between Stothert and Johnson in the weeks leading up to the recent public flare-up.

In a January note to the mayor, Council Chief of Staff Jim Dowding wrote that Johnson “asked me to convey her disappointment” about not being briefed on the announcement of two major grants affecting North Omaha.

Two days after her Feb. 6 exchange with Fanslau, Johnson asked Stothert to discipline the planning director for insubordination. (The mayor’s office redacted most of the email, saying it featured personal information about an employee, but a spokeswoman confirmed Johnson requested discipline for Fanslau via email.)

Stothert sent the letter to the council condemning Johnson’s behavior a day later.

Despite ample evidence of an ongoing beef, Stothert denied that her rocky relationship with Johnson influenced her decision to rebuke the councilwoman.

“This has everything to do with her treatment of city employees and city staff and city directors,” Stothert said, noting several other previous occasions when Johnson tangled with employees of the city’s legal team and parks department.

“The letter was to protect city employees from this abusive treatment, and I felt like the (fewer) that were present, the less chance she has to act out,” Stothert said.

It’s Festersen’s responsibility as council president to maintain decorum when discussion becomes hostile, she said.

Festersen said he’s worked hard to maintain civility at City Hall, adding that “it’s important that we rise above any personal or political differences and stay focused on the work of people.” He said it would be good if Stothert and Johnson could meet privately to discuss their issues.

Sherman Wells, a North Omaha community activist, says the core of the problem isn’t North Omaha’s councilwoman or the council president – it’s the mayor.

Stothert’s attempt to limit Johnson’s access to city employees is “just another form of suppression,” Wells said.

Thomas Warren

Thomas Warren, the mayor’s chief of staff, points the finger in the opposite direction, saying that since Johnson won a seat on the council she hasn’t made an effort to establish a relationship built on trust and mutual respect with Stothert’s administration.

“From the very beginning, it was almost as if it was adversarial,” he said. 

It’s difficult to see an end to the conflict between Stothert and Johnson.

Stothert said it’s not her job to address Johnson’s inappropriate behavior behind closed doors. When asked if she would meet privately with the councilwoman, Stothert said she would “in the presence of someone else.”

‘Who’s going to hold them accountable?’

To one of Johnson’s constituents, an interaction the mayor’s office cites as illustrative of Johnson’s inappropriate behavior looks more like the councilwoman sticking up for her district.

At the Jan. 23 council meeting, Johnson repeatedly prodded Deputy City Attorney Ryan Wiesen to answer a question about a program designed to prioritize small businesses based in low-income areas for city contracts.

Wiesen said he wouldn’t respond in a public forum since it could compromise the city’s position in a pending lawsuit but offered to meet with Johnson in private. 

To Stothert, the councilwoman’s line of questioning delayed a meeting and obstructed the work of city government. 

But Rodney Johnson thinks his councilwoman was just trying to get answers for him.

Rodney Johnson, no relation to the councilwoman, originally posed the question Wiesen wouldn’t address. The janitorial company owner is suing the city, alleging that it failed to properly consider his North Omaha-based business when awarding a city contract. 

The mayor is now punishing the city’s only Black councilwoman by restricting her ability to represent her community, he said.

Rodney Johnson, owner of a janitorial company, addresses the Omaha City Council during its Feb. 27 meeting. In a lawsuit against the city, Johnson alleges that it failed to properly consider his North Omaha-based business when awarding a city contract. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

Since arriving on the council, Johnson has faced microaggressive disrespect from city colleagues that Black people in America experience constantly, said Wells, the community advocate.

The interaction with Fanslau epitomizes that point in Wells’ mind. The news clips that captured the exchange left out the lead-up in which Johnson asked a question that Fanslau appeared to ignore, Wells said.

Johnson refused to put up with the degrading treatment, so Stothert decided to make an example of her, Wells said.

By politicizing Johnson’s contentions with city staff, the mayor created a divisive image for Omahans, Wells said. Many white residents might see Johnson as an “angry Black woman” yelling at staffers, while many in the Black community might see Stothert as “a racist white woman” trying to put down their elected leader, he said.

As mayor, Stothert is “supposed to be developing relationships and bringing community together, not severing it,” Wells said.

Stothert said her handling of Johnson’s behavior has nothing to do with the councilwoman’s race, noting that she has hired a diverse staff and worked to make city government more inclusive.

Gray, the former councilman who has long had an oppositional relationship with Johnson, said the idea that Stothert came down harshly on Johnson because of her race is “nonsense.”

Former councilman Ben Gray

“People run to that (race) when they have nothing else that they can point to,” Gray said.

Gray said he and the mayor had a productive working relationship and often met several times a month to talk politics. The two didn’t always agree, but their collaboration helped to establish the Municipal Land Bank, a North Omaha jobs center and other progress, he said.

Johnson is part of a wave of newly elected politicians that doesn’t understand how to be effective in government, Gray said.

It’s a mistake to view the Stothert-Johnson dispute just as a conflict between two politicians – it goes back much further, said A’Jamal Byndon, chairman of Movement in Omaha for Racial Equity.

White-dominated City Hall operates like a “segregated apartheid” system and has always mistreated the Black community and its leaders, he said. 

For Cheryl Weston, the feud between Stothert and Johnson is not about race – it’s a case of two politicians serving their own egos rather than their constituents. 

And North Omaha is the “biggest loser,” the local community advocate said. 

The two leaders should be focusing on important issues affecting the area like economic development funding, conditions in low-income housing and a proposal for a large-scale business park, Weston said. 

Cheryl Weston, longtime North Omaha advocate, leaves the podium after addressing the Omaha City Council during its Feb. 27 meeting. Weston said North Omaha is the “biggest loser” in an ongoing feud between Mayor Jean Stothert and Councilwoman Juanita Johnson. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

When asked whether her exchange with Johnson is impeding Omaha’s progress, Stothert pointed to a handful of recent downtown development projects, including the Kiewit Luminarium and the Steelhouse music venue, as evidence that the city is moving forward under her administration.

(A spokesperson later supplied a list of projects completed or underway in North Omaha, including a Habitat for Humanity housing development and the revitalization of the former Spencer Homes neighborhood.)

Dorothy Johnson, the businesswoman, said there’s a disconnect between the mayor’s priorities and the wellbeing of North Omaha that predated Councilwoman Johnson’s tenure. 

“I think downtown is beautiful … but I haven’t seen that kind of investment into North Omaha,” Dorothy Johnson said. 

Stothert should provide extra support to Johnson given her community’s historic lack of resources, she said. 

To refocus the agenda on moving North Omaha forward, someone needs to bring Stothert and Councilwoman Johnson to the table for reconciliation, Dorothy Johnson said. 

“It’s unprofessional no matter how you slice it,” she said. “There’s a certain standard of behavior that must be upheld, and who’s going to hold them accountable to it?”

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.


Conflicts between strong personalities are not unusual in government. Ms. Stothert goes too far when she pulls city staff from committee meetings. Sharing information is vital. You can’t blackball someone because of clashes in personality or language. And responses should be respectful—telling another adult to “use their inside voice” is belittling and is no way to resolve differences.

This is an excellent story. Suppose the mayor examined the racial makeup of her staff, the compositions of the various commissions and committees, and the inability of the staff to visit with residents in North and South Omaha. In that case, we can see a pattern in Omaha.

In the end, for an elected representative to be effective, they must take the steps necessary to become effective. You can throw blame all you want, but it is the residents of North Omaha who pay the price. Race is irrelevant. Lots of elected officials, especially Dems and Repubs, have to work with people they don’t personally like to get things done. If it’s about your constituents, you’ll find a way.

It time for a new mayor,who listen and give to communities that gives the resources to better their district. I feel a mayor should be working for the people of Omaha, Nebraska and not for her own agenda.
Stop the racism.

Omaha residents are massively under represented in our own city. We have over a half-million residents represented by only SEVEN city council members. There is no way any city council member can reasonably advocate for the myriad parts of town they represent. Minneapolis in comparison is officially a smaller city and has THIRTEEN city members.

Ben Gray was on council during North Omaha biggest and most devastating decline. Couple with the miseducation of North Omaha residents when it comes voting, there has always been obstacles.

Ben Gray was on council during North Omaha biggest and most devastating decline. Couple with the miseducation of North Omaha residents when it comes voting, there has always been obstacles.

I hate how people seem to have forgotten that there is PASSION in politics. You’re making decisions that effect people’s lives everyday, sometimes discussions will get heated. Do I think what councilwoman Johnson said was unprofessional? Yes absolutely, but frankly if I’m out here busting my butt everyday for my community and I’m treated as nothing more than an annoyance by other city officials, my could see myself slipping a bit as well. Frankly, I just think the city government operates too much like a corporation and in doing so has lost respect for their coworkers as advocates for their communities.

***Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story.*** During a short phone conversation, the Democratic councilwoman ***said the news media have promoted “a one-sided narrative”*** and that it wasn’t worth her energy to comment further.

So her solution to the media presenting a “one-sided narrative” is not to participate when the media asks for her side of the narrative? Ummm….



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