Reno’s mayor talks about his remaining time in office
In 2002, Bob Cashell came to the rescue of business leaders accustomed to dominating City Hall. In that year, unpopular and pro-business Mayor Jeff Griffin was stepping down. It was a climate in which a mayor independent of the business community was a real possibility. His fellow businesspeople prevailed on Cashell to move into the city and run. Even then, he nearly lost. But his handling of the job was widely admired, and he was easily reelected twice. He now has two and a half years remaining before he must retire under term limits.
Texas native Cashell brought a wealth of public and private experience with him to the mayor’s job. Starting with a small Verdi truck stop in 1967, Cashell eventually was involved in operating numerous truck stops and casinos in two states and held more than 20 gambling licenses. He was elected to the Nevada Board of Regents in 1978, which he chaired, then became Nevada lieutenant governor in 1983. In that post, he chaired the state tourism and economic development commissions. He was elected lieutenant governor as a Democrat, but switched to the Republicans on Aug. 12, 1983. After leaving elected office, he served as Republican state chair.
When he became mayor, there was a good deal of infighting and rancor on the City Council, and Cashell was given a lot of the credit for creating greater harmony. He accomplished this in part by personal missionary work among the council members and partly by making sure that all parties to city issues were given respect and were heard—though he sometimes lost patience with community gadflies who he believed wasted Council time. He was successful enough that sometimes there have been complaints about the Council being too harmonious and easily led.
After this interview, during which we asked about his goals, he said, “You know, it’s not my goals. It’s the Council’s goals.”
You’ve got another six months with this Council. What would you like to get done in that time?
There’s a lot of priorities I have. … Getting Moana Springs, making that thing come to fruition and raising the funds for the new swimming pool, the different ball fields and upgrading those and getting the soccer fields and things, and really turning that back into some active property. Because back when I was starting off, I used to sponsor American Legion teams out there, playing baseball. …
I guess what I’m getting at is, right now you’ve got a Council you’re familiar with, you guys work like a well-oiled machine. You’re not going to have that advantage right away.
No, I’ll have that. I’ve met just about all of the [candidates for Council]. I think there’s only one I haven’t met, and I intend to meet this next week. … I find some similarities in a lot of the people that are going to be coming on. They’ve got a lot of start-up time that they’re going to have to put in to get caught up on where we are and what the priorities are and what we’ve been looking at. And so we’re going to work on those and get those guys up to speed. We’re going to have to get them up to speed pretty quick because I don’t want to have to sit around here for two and a half years getting things up to speed.
You do have two and a half years as mayor. How would you like to use that time?
Finishing some of the projects. You know, one of the things right now that I found when I asked Andrew Clinger to join our team—somebody with the financial background, and he’s put together a real good team with Robert Chisel and the rest of his staff. We got to get all of those [projects] under control so we know exactly where we are and what we’re doing. … And I think the transparency that they’re working on [needs completion]. Every contract that we have in the city, you’ll be able to see on the internet. You’ll be able to see who bid on it, who bid what prices, what they charged, what they’re doing, where they’re hiring their people, where they’re coming from, the whole nine yards. Also, you’re going to be able to see everybody’s payroll on the internet. You want to know what a fireman makes? All you have to do is dial his number in and pull it up, tell you how much overtime, how much sick time, what his benefits are and the whole thing. So trying to get that transparency brought in and do that. And I’d love to see that all finished before—well, I want a lot of it done before this Council leaves but definitely want to see it a hundred percent before I leave office.
Is there something that, when you leave office, is undone, you’re going to feel badly about?
No. You know, I had dreams of seeing this white water rafting course going all the way down to the automobile museum. But I’m not sure—depends on if I can find a foundation that’ll work with us or somebody to do it and those are things that I’ll look at. But also I want to make sure public safety is up to snuff before I leave office. In fact, I’d like to see some of the little contingents there in there right now straightened out before these people leave and before the county commissioners leave.
Little contingents? Like what?
Arguing over mutual [firefighting] aid and all those kind of things.
Do you get tired of hearing about the King’s Inn? [The Inn is a seven-story hotel between Third, Arlington and West streets that closed down decades ago and has stood empty ever since. Cashell talked about tearing it down during his first campaign for mayor.]
Oh. [Laughs] I want to blow the King’s Inn up so bad. In fact, I can’t wait to drive a bulldozer through the front door. The sad part, we had—maybe it was four years ago—we had somebody that was interested in doing the King’s Inn. And they were going to add three floors to it, and they had different shops and things. Then the two partners had a falling-out. And these were big developers out of San Francisco. They’d just finished up some projects like that. And I really thought, OK, we’ve come around. And now it’s just like—to have that building sitting there, it’s just an eyesore. From what they told me, it’s a well-constructed building. You’d have to go in there and get all the asbestos and everything. … It’s probably got a good nucleus, but—we either got to come up with a way to make them immediately open it up or tear it down. I mean, that’s just like some of the other blocks we got going up toward the freeway. Some people have gone in and tied [up] those old motels and stuff. And I tell staff, “Hey, find out what the rules are and give them an ultimatum. You tear them down, we tear them down. And we’ll lien the property, whatever.” But we have to find out what the grounds are we have to play with.
You’ve been in politics for a little over 30 years.
Yes, off and on.
Talk about the changes.
Well, there’s a lot of difference. I remember when I was chairman of the Board of Regents. I used to get invited down to their [state legislators’] meetings: “What are you willing to give up?” “What are you working on?” … Both parties—they invited me to closed door meetings with them. There’s a lot of tension between both parties right now and compromise seems to be a dirty word. And yet, that’s the way life is, is the art of compromise. As [former Nevada governor] Mike O’Callaghan told me one time, “Don’t go after the whole pie. Get a piece of pie. Work around it. …” There’s anger that I see in the legislative branch that really—and I don’t like the anger that’s between the county and the city right now. It’s not called for.
There was a time when I would not have imagined the Legislature becoming like Congress is, and yet it has—
Oh, it has.
I would argue that it’s also worked its way some in the County Commission. Do you foresee it working its way at this [city] level?
It’s happening right now. And I don’t like it. I don’t like it. I think that it’s got to change. It’s got to come back to where people work together and people want to compromise. … It seems like people want to have a hundred percent of everything, and I don’t think that ever happens when you’re in politics.
How do you convince them of that? I mean, obviously the case is there to be made to Congress, and it doesn’t help.
And even with our [state] legislative branch, I mean, I’ve got to get some of my people that think poking in the eyes is sport. … You got to sit and come down and sit with people. I’m hoping we can get some conversations going.
A lot of people here credit you personally with having improved the situation on the Council after you became mayor, that you worked out some of the disagreements, some of the personality conflicts, that sort of thing. Most of the Council next January is going to be new. Some of those people are going to have their own agendas.
If things get tense again, they’re going to be looking to you.
Well, then, I’m willing to sit down with them. I’ve met with a couple of them, and I said, “Let’s you and I have an understanding right now. We can agree to disagree. If I can’t convince you my way is the way to do it, then you convince me your way is. And sometimes we’re just never going to settle, so let’s just agree to disagree and go have a cocktail afterwards and visit with each other. Let’s don’t become enemies over you not getting your way or I didn’t get what I wanted and stuff like that.” And, you know, I’ve been very fortunate to have a Council that was very easy to work with. They don’t always agree. Some of them go in different directions, and I even wonder where in the hell they came from. But you got to keep your mind open and work with all of them.
During these last six, seven months, now that fire’s behind you, do you think the relationship with the [County] Commission will improve?
I’m hoping so. I do know that after the elections the attitudes will change. You got one or two county commissioners, and I got one or two Council people that, you know, just love poking people in the eye. …
We’ve had recessions in 1981, 1992, there was one in the early 21st century, and now. Have we learned anything about how to protect against future recessions?
Dennis, I think everybody relied so much on gaming, they convinced themselves that the gaming was the kingpin of the world. And with gaming spreading the way it is, a new one opening up 45 minutes from San Francisco, the one that opened up in Auburn, they’re just eating us alive. And we have to diversify the economy. Having Apple come in, having Microsoft here, those type of things help us and if we can get more of Microsoft in and get some more of Apple going, then those are good paying jobs that come in. I already know of two other major companies that I can’t even announce and when we turn these two boxes [tape recorders] off, I’ll tell you about them. But just the announcement with Apple has had the phones ringing a little bit, asking questions and stuff like this. Or I just met with a gentleman that wants to do something by the university and stuff, and all of a sudden they’re coming out of the woodwork—“Well, maybe Reno’s not a bad place to live.” The Legislature really has to address our tax situation here and do some things like that and quit playing kick the can, you know.
How deep do you think the understanding is that the casinos are not the source of prosperity that they once were for us? I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say in the last year, “Once the recession is over …”
Well, the gaming is not going to come back like it did. I remember when lottery first started in California, you know, in Boomtown [Cashell’s former Verdi casino]. My dollar slots just fell off. I thought somebody was stealing from me. And then about, oh, maybe four, five months later my revenues are back. … So people were spending that discretionary money buying those tickets in California at the gas stations, convenience stores and once they worked it back in their budget, they were [back] here. But now—we didn’t have casinos in California, one on 50, one on Interstate 80, and a new one going by San Francisco. The one on 80 took a lot of revenue—that building alone took a lot of revenue out of this market. So we’re going to have to upgrade our products. The casino owners are going to have to stick their necks out, like the Peppermill and Atlantis and John [Ascuaga] have a little bit, and so has the Eldorado. But they’re going to have to stick their neck out and gamble on it. But I don’t see gaming—personally—I don’t see gaming back like it used to be. … But again, then you need to look—other states, they don’t have slot machines in every grocery store or every gas station and every bar. So we’re going to have to look at that and see, are we’re going to continue to do that? Because those people don’t bring anybody to town. Not that I’m against them or anything, but they don’t bring anybody to the town. The big hotels bring in the [tourists], so here they’ve [spent] some hundred million, and then you let 25 slot machines go across the street from them, that hurts them a little bit. You need to look at the overall thing.
How much damage has the recession done to the operations of city government?
It’s really hurt. All of our property tax, sales tax, and room tax are all off, what—about 40 percent. That really hurts.
But I mean, what didn’t get done?
Luckily, I think we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve got some sewer stuff that we need to do. Some of our roads and things that we needed to do. We’ve got some pieces of property, that when it [the economy] comes back, that we should unload and put them out on the market. But I wouldn’t put them out now because you’d get 10 cents on the dollar of what you ought to get them for, and we’re not in a position that we need to do that right now. So in the future we’ll do it. The developing of paying for unfunded liabilities—you know, the heart/lung deal for firemen and stuff like that is a very big nickel—and we’ve got to figure out and make sure we’ve got that covered. But again, the unions, working with the unions, some of the bargaining groups, we need for them to step up to the plate and work with us a little more. …
Do you think the people understand the financial restrictions you operate under that are imposed by the state?
No. They don’t. They don’t understand the tax system. They don’t understand the distribution system. And really, I don’t see them getting interested in learning. They just say, you know, “You guys are goofballs and can’t do anything” and stuff like that. When you try to explain—I had a lady not long ago, I’m out to dinner and [here the mayor made a sound that is difficult to transcribe into words that represented an angry citizen’s comments]. And I don’t mind, they can call me any day, and I’ll meet with them, whatever. But when I’m out [to] dinner with my family, I don’t really want to get my tail chewed out. But you try to explain to her—“I don’t care what you got to say [she said]. I know you’re just going to blow smoke.” … You just can’t worry about it. You just got to go, and you can’t be real thin-skinned about this stuff.
Are you going to cultivate a successor?
I don’t know if I’ll cultivate one. There’s three or four people that I’ve heard talking about it, running, and all I can [do is] see who’s there and see who I could work with or who’s going to carry on and do some of the things that I’d like to see done.
Knowing what it’s like, are you going to miss it?
Yes, I will. I thoroughly enjoy being mayor of the city. It’s been a great honor to be mayor of the city. I will miss it very much. I’m probably getting to the age where I should think about retirement, but really I don’t want to retire. If the next two and a half years with the new Council and stuff is as great as working with [the current Council], I’m going to be very sad when I leave office because it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun working with the people. It’s a lot of fun finessing. It’s a lot of fun negotiating. It’s even fun to be called a jackass once in a while—“You hard-headed mule,” you know. “Well, now, come on. Let me show you this side of it.” … I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been a lot of fun. And I get a lot of credit for things that the Council does, so I try to make sure that the Council gets credit for it because they’re the ones that did it. … We as a team make things happen. … But the homeless shelter’s there because we as a team decided we’re going to bite the bullet and address our problems. A lot of cities want to study it—“How did you do it?” … And right now I think I have one of the best city managers coming along that we’ve had out of the four.