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RobSchlotterbeck / Patrick Semansky, The Associated Press 

Maryland forward Bruno Fernando of Angola celebrates after Nebraska turned over the ball to Maryland in the second half Wednesday in College Park, Md. Maryland won 74-72.

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Mayor Beutler highlights 5 issues he hopes to tackle before his term ends

Chris Beutler is still laser-focused on the job entering his final months as Lincoln’s mayor.

Beutler doesn’t want to talk about his legacy, the accomplishments of his 12 years as Lincoln mayor.

“We can save that conversation for later,” he said during an interview in late December.

Beutler also said he hasn’t started thinking seriously about what he might do in retirement. He’s too busy planning what he wants to accomplish before he leaves office in May.

He’s got a list of things he wants to finish before spring and a list of important issues that will face his successors over the next decade. Beutler started the lists after voters in the November election approved a charter amendment limiting mayors to three terms, meaning he could not run for a fourth term as he had hoped.

Getting the seven-member council to agree with some controversial issues will be difficult since two of its members — Cyndi Lamm and Leirion Gaylor Baird — are running for the mayor’s seat, as is the city attorney, Jeff Kirkpatrick.

“They are all politically savvy and all at a point where they need to be cautious. So that represents a major impediment to getting things done,” Beutler said.

“And that is not being critical. It’s just that time of a democratic cycle where caution prevails,” he said.

Getting things done doesn’t necessarily mean everything will be completed in the next four months. Sometimes it will mean doing something to advance certain projects and leaving completion for the future, he said.

Here’s Beutler’s list for the short term:

Transportation sales tax

Journal Star file photo 

The mayor wants a spring ballot question regarding a sales tax for transportation projects.

Getting additional money for transportation by putting a sales tax earmarked for streets on the spring ballot for voter approval is at the top of the mayor’s list.

A transportation task force, which finished its study a year ago, said the city needs an additional $33 million a year to meet transportation needs. “If we could get 40 to 50 percent of that through a ballot issue, that would be a significant move forward,” Beutler said.

The task force suggested a voter-approved sales tax likely as the least-controversial tax to use for increasing funding for local streets.

“I think the people want to vote on this,” Beutler said. And based on those conversations, he believes a sales tax increase would pass.

“What I don’t want to do is create any renewal of that old divide” between neighborhood associations and the new-growth people. “That was a deep divide that held up progress in the city for a number of years,” he said.

The creation of an impact fee on new developments helped pay for new streets, parks, water and sewer line extensions and decreased the animosity of politically active residents of old neighborhoods who feared too much property and sales tax funding was going to developments at the city’s edge and not enough to maintain the infrastructure in the older parts of the city.

“I don’t want to go back to those days where there was no compromise and no way to reach solutions,” said Beutler.

West Haymarket park

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

West Haymarket JPA is purchasing 215 S. Seventh St. from the owners of WRK. The JPA plans to demolish the existing building and build a park, plaza and trail hub in hopes of spurring redevelopment to the south.

Finishing the vision for the West Haymarket is second on Beutler’s list. The mayor plans to hire a consultant to work on a master plan for what is being called the West Park.

The West Haymarket Joint Public Agency is on the verge of a land swap that will give the JPA, and thus the city, the land it needs to provide a plaza and public access into that park and spur potential private development in the area.

This area is uniquely positioned for a public-private partnership, Beutler said. Developing the park is an economic development piece that would attract more housing and development in that area.

Process issues

Beutler has several process-type issues on his list, including refining the performance-measurement system his administration has been using to identify goals and measure performance. He also wants to refine and expand the city’s open-data system.

Affordable housing study

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

A study could help the city determine how it can create more affordable housing.

Affordable housing has emerged as a growing problem. The city has participated in affordable housing projects in the past but perhaps not on the scale that is needed now, Beutler said.

He plans to have the city pay for a study that defines what affordable housing is, where the city should be participating, and how the city should work with existing agencies such as the Housing Authority, Beutler said.

“A study would get everyone on the same page as to what we are talking about and how to go about it,” he said.

"The federal government is kind of bailing out of the housing issue. The state here is not inclined to do much. So the cities are the last hope of the impoverished,” he said.

Downtown projects


City Centre, planned for Ninth and P streets, is one of several downtown development projects in the works.

Beutler would also like to get several downtown development projects up and moving, including City Centre, the replacement of the Journal Star office building at Ninth and P streets with a mixed-use office, housing complex.

Beutler said he was disappointed by the term-limits vote, but he doesn’t think he would have done anything differently.

He and his team "explored all the legal objections and potential lawsuits" in reviewing the law that allowed the term-limit vote to apply retroactively. But Beutler said he felt it was best to honor the will of the people and let the ballot issue move forward.

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Lincoln man accused in fatal stabbing held without bond

For at least three hours on a frigid, dark New Year's Eve, police didn't know the identity of the young mother found stabbed on a driveway in north Lincoln, Chief Jeff Bliemeister said Wednesday.

A dark-colored car seen in the 1900 block of Montclair Drive had sped away just after 7 p.m., and the unconscious woman with stab wounds all over her body who was rushed to Bryan West Campus died 30 minutes later.

She didn't have ID on her, and investigators couldn't identify her using her fingerprints or by facial recognition, the chief said.

But after several hours, a crime scene technician documenting and searching in the Belmont neighborhood where the woman was found discovered a small keychain containing a pivotal break in the case, Bliemeister said.

Police used the account number from a grocery store chain's customer rewards card to identify Dijah Ybarra, a 21-year-old Lincoln mother of two.

That discovery jump-started a homicide investigation that culminated in the arrest of a suspect Tuesday morning, the chief said.

“Tremendous cooperative efforts from those in Lincoln and diligent investigative work by our staff led to the arrest of Neland Gray Jr.," Bliemeister told reporters Wednesday.

Gray, 21, was charged Wednesday with first-degree murder and use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony in the death of Ybarra, the mother of his children.

Her killing was the city's fourth homicide in 2018 and the first domestic violence death of the year.

Attempts to reach the family of the 2015 Lincoln Southeast High School graduate were unsuccessful Wednesday.

By Wednesday night, an online fundraiser established for Ybarra's family had raised about $10,000.

"Dijah Ybarra, 21, leaves behind two little boys under the age of two," Farah Kort Wilkason said in the online fundraiser for her "sweet friend."

"Anyone who knew Dijah, knows she had a huge heart! She was a beautiful person inside and out."

Wednesday, police were still determining the timeline of events preceding the stabbing. But in an affidavit to jail Gray, Sgt. Brian Agnew detailed how witnesses and family members led investigators to their lone suspect.

An autopsy Tuesday confirmed Ybarra died from the multiple stab wounds she sustained in the attack, and police observed at least a dozen puncture wounds, Agnew said in the affidavit.

On Montclair Drive on Monday night, police spoke to a neighbor and passers-by who described seeing a slender man get into a dark-colored car and speed off westbound.

Two passers-by told police they saw a man hitting a woman in the face before leaving.

Soon after identifying Ybarra as the victim, police discovered a 2017 assault that resulted in Gray’s being jailed, Agnew said.

Gray was released Oct. 2 after serving 119 days in that case, where he entered a plea to attempted terroristic threats, resisting arrest, domestic assault and disturbing the peace charges in a deal with prosecutors.

Lincoln police said he hit Ybarra on Dec. 2, 2017, hit a woman trying to help and then threatened another man with a knife in the 3400 block of Portia Street.

Initially charged with two felonies and several misdemeanor charges, Gray pleaded no contest to the reduced charges, and Lancaster County District Judge Lori Maret sentenced him to a year in jail.

Maret gave him credit for 80 days he already had served in jail in the case.

In August, Maret ordered Gray not to contact Ybarra while he was on post-release supervision and instructed him to complete a domestic violence intervention program, according to court filings.

He was scheduled to be on post-release supervision until October 2019.

With this case in-hand overnight Monday, investigators went to Gray's mother’s home, looking for him, the affidavit said.

But his mother told investigators she didn’t know where he was. He’d left her house at 5 p.m., saying he was going out for the night, according to the affidavit.

Gray called his mother at 7:20 p.m., she told investigators.

He sounded stressed and said “I’m going to jail,” she reported.

Her first instinct was to call and check on Ybarra, she told investigators. The call wasn’t answered.

Gray’s mother had been concerned about her son's toxic relationship with Ybarra, she told police. She mentioned that her son had been insulting Ybarra and her new boyfriend on social media in the days prior, the affidavit said.

Police discovered Ybarra had dropped off the children at a relative’s home in the 3300 block of Portia Street at 7 p.m.

Gray had called the relative, who often babysits for the family, about a half-hour earlier, inquiring if she would watch the children, including their second child, born July 24.

After Ybarra dropped off the children, she returned to her car where Gray was waiting, the woman told investigators.

“The first call to police dispatch reporting the discovery of Ybarra’s body was placed nine minutes later and six blocks away,” Agnew said in the affidavit.

Investigators believe Ybarra picked Gray up from a friend’s house, dropped off their children with the relative, then drove to the 1900 block of Montclair Drive, where she was going to drop him off at another friend’s home, Agnew said.

While parked, Gray continued talking about their relationship and her new boyfriend and then pulled out a knife, stabbed Ybarra several times, followed her out of the car and continued attacking her before driving off in her car, according to police.

Tuesday morning, police picked up Gray. He was jailed on suspicion of first-degree murder and use of a weapon to commit a felony.

Ybarra's car was located at an undisclosed location and police searched it for more evidence Wednesday, Bliemeister said.

Gray appeared in Lancaster County Court on Wednesday afternoon, where Judge Joe Dalton appointed the Public Defender's Office to represent him.

Dalton ordered Gray to be held in jail without bond, citing concerns over the safety of witnesses, among other reasons.

He faces life imprisonment if convicted on the first-degree murder charge.

Tops on House Dems' to-do list: End shutdown

WASHINGTON — House Democrats are sweeping into power this week on a campaign promise of improving government for ordinary Americans. But first, they'll have to get government reopened from the partial shutdown.

As the Congress gavels in for the 116th session the early votes will be the usual ones — establishing the House rules and electing the House speaker, presumably California Democrat Nancy Pelosi. But the new majority will quickly pivot Thursday to a pair of bills to fund the parts of the government that have been shuttered in the dispute over money for President Donald Trump's border wall with Mexico.

It's a cold opening for the new majority, setting up an early confrontation with the Republican-led Senate and the White House and testing the House Democrats' ability to make good on their campaign pledge to focus on kitchen-table issues in the new era of divided government.

"Our first order of business will be to end the reckless Trump shutdown and reopen the government," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the incoming caucus chairman, said in an interview. Then, he said, "we will turn our attention to bringing our democracy to life and returning our government to the people."

So far, House Democrats appear largely unified in their plan to vote to reopen government without the money Trump is demanding to build the border wall.

Jeffries said that while Trump wants to "waste millions in taxpayer dollars on a medieval border wall," Democrats are drawing "a line in the stand" against the spending they say won't make the border any safer.

"The partisanship, rancor and dysfunction of the Trump shutdown is exactly what voters rebuked in November," said Rep.-elect Joe Neguse of Colorado, a new leader of the freshman class, in the Democrats' weekly address. "And that is why on Jan. 3rd, when the new Democratic House majority arrives, we will bring the hope, vision and goals of effective governance back to the forefront."

But with Trump dug in over the $5 billion he wants to build the wall, the shutdown could drag on. Senate Republicans are reluctant to consider the House bills unless they know the president is on board.

Democrats are eager to move forward in the House on multiple fronts.

They're set to approve a rules package Thursday that sets a new tone for governing. For example, it requires that legislation first be considered in committees before bills are brought to the floor for votes. It bans lawmakers from serving on corporate boards. And it recognizes the diversity of the new freshman class by easing a century-old rule against wearing hats on the chamber floor to allow Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, a Muslim-American from Minnesota, to wear a head scarf.

By early next week, House Democrats are expected to consider a resolution to defend the Affordable Care Act in legal proceedings after a Texas judge ruled it largely unconstitutional in a legal challenge brought by Republican attorneys general from several states.

H.R. 1, the first bill of the new House majority, is a good-government package that tackles campaign-finance reforms and other issues. It will begin making its way through the newly bolstered committee process.

And they will continue their oversight of the Trump administration and Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Incoming Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., insists the new majority can "walk and chew gum" at the same time.

Still, corralling a large House majority has never been easy, and Democrats are ushering in the largest class since the Watergate era. Republicans under retiring Speaker Paul Ryan all but gave up trying to muscle the conservative House Freedom Caucus in line. It was the Freedom Caucus leaders who urged Trump to fight for the border wall money and reject legislation that would have prevented the shutdown days before Christmas.

Pelosi is expected to regain the gavel Thursday, securing the votes to become speaker even after some new and returning lawmakers signaled they wanted new leadership. She would be the first woman to hold, then return, to the office.

But divisions remain, rearing up even before the newly elected members are sworn into office, as many are eager for change and ready to confront Trump.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has been critical of the leader's plans to create a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. She prefers a panel that focuses on renewable energy investments and whose members refuse campaign donations from oil and other fossil fuel industries.

"Our ultimate end goal isn't a Select Committee," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted as the panel was being formed. "Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary - aka a Green New Deal - to get it done. A weak committee misses the point & endangers people."