A morning of democracy

There's little news coverage where it still works

Shortly before being sworn in, Washoe sheriff-elect Chuck Allen greeted an infant constituent.

Shortly before being sworn in, Washoe sheriff-elect Chuck Allen greeted an infant constituent.

Photo/Dennis Myers

In the state capital, a governor’s inaugural emphasized cooperation and good will while Republicans and Democrats circled each other with suspicion, plotting partisan advantage. In Reno on the same day, however, the swearing-in of new local officials was less formal and more genuinely friendly.

Chuck Allen, a Republican, was on hand to take the oath to replace Mike Haley, a Democrat, as Washoe county sheriff, but the party thing hardly mattered, Allen said.

“We’ve been working with Sheriff Haley and his staff members since Nov. 17,” Allen said. “We’ve been provided our own office, and the transition’s worked very, very smoothly.”

That was all the more heartening because not only was Haley of the opposite party of Allen, but Haley had also endorsed Allen’s opponent, who was Haley’s undersheriff. But then, Allen was bucking the local establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Allen and his opponent, Tim Kuzanek, were both Republicans and when Kuzanek got into the race he already had the support of Haley, the mayors of Reno and Sparks, the county district attorney, and two former sheriffs. Allen overcame all that firepower.

Among those being sworn in at a county commission meeting in addition to the sheriff were judges, public administrators like the county clerk and assessors, local improvement board members, and members of the county commission itself. The meeting began as it always does—with statements from community activists who attend every county commission meeting. It’s a form of informality that wasn’t seen in Carson City.

The first activist to speak, as he often is, was Sam Dehne, who then informed the incoming officials of his record of accomplishment. “See that clock up there?” he asked. “When I arrived there was no clock.” He was referring to a three-minute countdown clock that keeps the activists to their allotted time. In case the officials were not impressed by his getting the clock installed, Dehne further informed them, “I have brought Tesla to Reno.”

One of the activists complained that the local oath of office was longer than the presidential oath (43 words longer, more than twice the length of the presidential oath) yet it never pledges loyalty to the public, only to institutions.

Once that part of the meeting was completed, an assembly line of officials were put through their oaths. Nevada District Judge David Hardy first swore in three county commissioners—the newly reelected Kitty Jung and newcomers Jeanne Herman and Bob Lucey.

Newly re-elected County Commissioner Kitty Jung signed her oath of office.

Photo/Dennis Myers

Then the agency heads like Allen were sworn in. Following that came members of local governing boards like the Sun Valley General Improvement District. Their campaigns rarely get covered but they have to run for election like all the others.

When the ritual was completed, Jung took Herman’s hand and led her to her seat at the commission table, a gesture that helped establish a feeling of friendliness.


Jung, like Haley, is unusual in being a Democrat. Most Washoe sheriffs and most county commissioners are Republicans, and Jung has been the only Democrat on the commission. She said this has sometimes led to friction but not the level of dysfunction seen in Congress and Carson City. In addition, she said, things got better two years ago when Republican commissioners Vaughn Hartung and Marsha Berkbigler were elected. They shared some of her community values and concerns.

“They came in with open minds and very supportive of what you would call traditionally Democratic values such as extending library operating hours, which we had cut severely, expanding parks and recreation, which we had also cut severely. So while sometimes it is difficult … in general, we have worked really well.”

She said a good example was medical marijuana, which the commission implemented without calling a moratorium on the program first, which many other local governments did, much less outlawing the voter-mandated program, which Lyon County did.

However, the cooperative attitude of those Republicans has spurred rumors that doctrinaire Republicans might target the two commissioners. While the dysfunctional brand of partisanship may not have reached the local level yet, that doesn’t mean it can’t. It took awhile to reach the Nevada Legislature, too.

For Allen, there is also the difficulty of taking office as sheriff at a time in the history of law enforcement that few would describe as tranquil. Allen said he is aware of the climate of mistrust and ready to deal with it.

“And I think a lot of it has to do with you as a leader, no matter what organization you’re from—how you engage your community, how you engage the public and get out in front and explain your actions. I think it’s easy for anyone in life to look at negative situations and how those grow, and I think that’s important for any leader to be more involved, to be more connected, to have the rapport and respect of Washoe County. … And I’ll do that with a lead-by-example philosophy.”

But that kind of verbiage led to disappointment when some local leader Allen had sought a meeting with Marcopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio during the transition. At a meeting the next day of the Nevada Women’s Lobby, for instance, some attendees expressed their dismay.

The newcomers to local bodies like the county commission will discover that all the television cameras and press coverage will disappear fast. Few daily news outlets staff the county commission as a full time beat, instead showing up when something really juicy happens, usually involving conflict, particularly conflict with the city of Reno, such as fire services or tax allocations.