As he prepared to embark on a three-week trip to Sicily, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert defended his out-of-town trip, which has drawn increased scrutiny in recent weeks amid attention of the media and a controversial proposal to change the charter of the city.
The trip, which has been postponed until 2021, is one of the final steps needed to cement the Sicilian town of Carlentini as Omaha’s seventh sister city. Stothert plans to travel to Italy on Friday and return on September 10. He is paying his own expenses and no taxpayer money is being used for his trip, according to the mayor’s office.
The trip comes after weeks of growing public concern over the frequency of the mayor’s out-of-state trips. Commenters on social media and elsewhere have criticized Stothert and at times questioned his commitment to running the city.
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“I was out (of town) six times in 2021, and I’ve been out six times so far this year,” Stothert told The World-Herald in a phone interview Thursday.
Through a records request, The World-Herald reported in July that Stothert was out of town 39 days in the first six months of 2022, meaning he was out of town for about 21 percent of this time
The World-Herald’s report came as members of the city’s Charter Convention considered a proposal by Stothert that would allow city mayors to remain in office when traveling outside city limits.
Stothert argued that the current policy, which requires the City Council president to serve as acting mayor whenever the mayor leaves Omaha, was outdated, especially at a time when technology would allow her or any other tough mayor conduct city business while out of town. Despite his reasoning, the proposal was not one of 10 charter amendments recommended by a City Council committee.
Stothert said much of her free time in 2021 was spent with family and friends following the death of her husband, Dr. Joe Stothert, who committed suicide in March 2021.
“You have to remember that in 2021, my husband killed himself,” Stothert said. “I needed some time off to spend with friends and family, and I’m sorry if that upsets people. But I had to.”
Most of his time outside of Omaha in 2022 has been spent in St. Louis to visit her mother and sister, to Cincinnati to visit her son, and to Maryland to see Dr. J. Kevin O’Rourke, whom Stothert married in May.
O’Rourke plans to travel with Stothert to Sicily and intends to move to Omaha this fall. Like the mayor, O’Rourke will pay his own travel expenses.
Stothert and Carlentini Mayor Guiseppe Steffio signed a “friendship agreement” in September 2021 in recognition of a century-old connection between the two cities. The purpose of the trip is to exchange art, culture, business and education ideas with Carlentini, Stothert said.
Because the tour group’s itinerary will be full while in Carlentini, Stothert said, she will not be attending a Nebraska Huskers football game to be played in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27.
The trip comes about a month after Mayor Steffio visited Omaha to meet with Stothert and other community leaders and participate in Omaha’s Santa Lucia Festival.
“The bottom line: It’s diplomacy,” Stothert said.
Omaha’s travel delegation of about 80 includes members of the Sicula Italia Foundation, Sons of Italy, the Santa Lucia Festival Committee, the American Italian Heritage Society and the Omaha Sister Cities Association.
Attracted to Carlentini, Italian immigrants more than a century ago poured into Omaha, establishing the Little Italy neighborhood and creating a growing bond that continues in Omaha to this day.
It is in part because of Omaha’s large Sicilian and Italian population that the Omaha Sister Cities Association saw a potential new sister city in Carlentini.
Omaha has six existing sister cities: Yantai, China; Braunschweig, Germany; Naas, Ireland; Shizuoka, Japan; Siauliai, Lithuania; and Xalapa, Mexico.
Our best August 2022 Omaha staff photos and videos
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