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Portrait of Jon Camp, 5.16

Jon Camp, the longest-serving City Council member in Lincoln history, was one of the first developers to begin reshaping the Haymarket.

When Jon Camp was first elected to the Lincoln City Council in 1999, one of his goals was to get the South Beltway done as quickly as possible.

"When I came on, that was one of my themes: Get the South Beltway done in six years. This was 1999," Camp said. "I swore I'd stay in office until it's done."

He didn't quite make it, as construction of the freeway that will funnel Nebraska 2 through traffic south of the city is set to start next year and be completed in 2023. But he did get to see a lot of progress during his 20 years on the council, including completion of the Antelope Valley flood-control project, opening of the Pinnacle Bank Arena and development of the West Haymarket area.

"Being born and raised here, I can remember so much of what Lincoln was 50, 60 years ago, and I know the history, and this is really fun to see the progress and still keep a perspective on the history," Camp said.

Fellow City Council member Roy Christensen said that vast historical knowledge is one of Camp's strengths.

"Jon has an incredible institutional memory," Christensen said. "If it happened in the past 20 years, he remembers it."

Camp, who referred to himself as the "old guy" on the council, is taking that institutional memory back to the private sector after spending more time in office than any council member in the city's history.

"To serve 20 years is just unbelievable," said Councilman Carl Eskridge, who is leaving his Council seat after eight years. "I couldn't imagine doing it."

Camp has been heavily involved in the Haymarket as a developer and property owner, and he represents the southeast part of Lincoln where he lives, but he said he always felt it was important to look at the job of council member as serving everyone in the city.

"I just feel that I served Lincoln and Lincolnites, and we ought to do what's best for the city," he said.

Camp, one of the first people to develop the Historic Haymarket, called the growth that has occurred there over recent years "tremendous." But he's equally impressed with the growth in south Lincoln, citing as an example the recent expansion of the Scheels store at SouthPointe Pavilions, which tripled its size.

"The retail base that has grown in that area is wonderful," Camp said.

He also mentioned the Telegraph District just east of downtown and development that is occurring in the Stevens Creek area east of 84th Street as examples of recent success.

While Camp says he's always aimed to do what's best for the city, his view of what's best hasn't always been shared by his fellow council members.

For example, he has been a frequent critic of Lincoln Fire & Rescue during his time on the council, opposing taking over ambulance services from a private company in 2000 and often questioning spending and staffing levels in the department.

More than once, Camp has been accused of having a vendetta against firefighters.

But Camp said his positions and votes on fire department issues have been in line with his philosophy of fiscal conservativism and making sure city spending decisions are rooted in common sense.

He said public safety has always been one of his priorities, and he highlighted the fact that he pushed early on to make sure the city continued to adequately fund the pension funds for police and fire personnel.

Camp also pointed out that he supported the quarter-cent sales tax increase approved by voters to pay for new fire stations.

Though they often disagreed on issues, Eskridge said Camp's views are passionate and sincerely held.

"I think he's always thinking about Lincoln," Eskridge said.

Camp said one of his great regrets from his time on the council is that he feels city government has become more politicized and more partisan.

Camp lays much of that blame on the mayor's office. He said it started with Don Wesely, who was elected the same year Camp joined the council, and has continued under the 12 years Chris Beutler has been in office.

Camp said there has been a lack of transparency, especially on the budget, with council members, particularly Republicans, being left out of the process until the last minute.

Tensions over the budget came to a head in 2016 when Beutler sued the Republican-majority council to determine whether the council-approved budget, which Beutler vetoed, or his proposed budget would stand. The mayor ultimately prevailed.

Camp said he thinks the court showdown could have been avoided if there had been better communication between the mayor and council.

But he said he's also seen communication, especially on a personal level, deteriorate between council members.

Camp said when he first joined the council, members from both political parties used to have a weekly brown bag lunch that helped them get to know each other better.

That ended after a few years, and he said he thinks bringing it back, or doing something similar, might help improve collegiality among council members.

Camp said it's tough for anyone to serve in elected office these days, with the time commitment as well as increased scrutiny.

"I respect anyone who puts their hat into the ring," he said.

Camp said he believes a charter amendment passed several years ago that prohibits the mayor, City Council members and department heads from having contracts with the city has cut down on the number of business owners willing to run for city office.

Camp noted that there were only three candidates for his seat this year, despite there being no incumbent in the race. When he first ran, he said, there were nine or 10 candidates.

More candidates might help improve Republican results in mayoral elections, Camp said. Leirion Gaylor Baird is the fourth straight Democratic mayor elected, and by the time her first term is up, it will have been 24 years since there last was a Republican in charge at City Hall. That has occurred even though Republicans have a slight voter registration advantage in Lincoln.

Camp said that he plans to stay active in the community, although he doesn't "want to be viewed as an ex-City Council member."

As for his time on the council, he said: "It's been a privilege and an honor to serve."

It was a privilege, too, for many of his colleagues.

"He's been a joy for me to work with," Christensen said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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