Bottled up

A Reno collectibles club battles city hall

During a break at their Feb. 9 meeting, members of the Antique Bottle & Collectibles Club chat about their hassles with officialdom.

During a break at their Feb. 9 meeting, members of the Antique Bottle & Collectibles Club chat about their hassles with officialdom.

Photo By dennis myers

At Reno’s Girl Scouts building, members of the Antique Bottle & Collectibles Club were taking a break in the conference room after their business meeting. Following snacks, they would hear the evening’s speaker, former state archivist Guy Louis Rocha. But during the break, their minds were on what they had heard during the business meeting. They chatted animatedly and irately about what they’d been told.

The meeting had begun with officers informing the members of the latest chapter in the club’s long-running battle with Reno city government.

Members of the club, as the name indicates, collect bottles and other things. They also sell them. Once a year they have a substantial show, the Reno Sparks Antiques and Collectibles Show, that attracts vendors and visitors from around the region and sometimes farther away. Every four years, this event becomes a major exposition with traders from all over the nation and the world. But these programs may be coming to an end unless the club can figure out how to deal with city government.

It makes an interesting tale of the relationship between citizens and their governments, the kind of civics lesson that innumerable groups and individuals experience.

Some years ago, the club started getting static from the city about its sales of collectibles. They were told that when they sold older items—defined as pre-1950—those could be considered antiques, and only a weekend permit costing a few dollars would be required for the annual shows. But for more recently manufactured items—post-1950—a $50 fingerprint check, including an FBI background check, is required. This, they were told, was necessary because of a state law. Club members say it drives away vendors who don’t have to go through the same thing at other shows, either out of state or within Nevada.

“No one from California is going to come up to sell some antique golf clubs if he has to go through this,” said club officer Marty Hall.

A member decided to contact other collectibles clubs around the state and see how they dealt with the problem. He said he was unable to find another municipal government in the state that enforces the law in this way. One member believes the law was written to regulate pawnbrokers.

The club considered moving the show to Sparks. But so far, the only site they’ve checked out in the Rail City is the Sparks Nugget, which requires a 300-room guarantee. They can’t promise that.

So instead, they got the state law changed. Washoe County Sen. Bernice Martin Mathews introduced a bill to remove the provisions in the law that were making life miserable for the club. Senate Bill 193 was introduced on March 10, 2009. It passed the Senate by a vote of 21 to zip on April 15. It was another unanimous vote for the bill in the Assembly on May 18. It was signed by the governor on May 26 and took effect on July 1. The organization’s winter newsletter reported, “Marve Jacobson announced the good news that Governor Gibbons had signed Senate Bill No. 193, which pertains to Special Event Shows like ours. We will now be exempt from having to be fingerprinted, investigated and pay an exorbitant fee to sell antique bottles.”

But then, acting on legal opinions from both the city attorney and the attorney general, the city said the legislation had not done the trick.

Members of the club listened during their business meeting. In the foreground are antique ceramic containers collected by a member. They once contained cold cream, toothpaste and hand cream.

Photo By dennis myers

The supposed villain in this story is not a villain at all. Her name is Liz Bowen, a perfectly nice person who has dealt with the club on these issues for the City of Reno. She is sympathetic to the club’s difficulties.

“The city has tried very hard to make it simple for the vendors to go through a fingerprint check,” she said. “But this is not optional for us—the law requires it.”

She said the $50 fingerprint check is for vendors and involves a simple FBI background check. The organizers of events like the Antiques and Collectibles Show must go through an even more rigorous FBI background check costing $228.

The problem is a state law enacted in 1997 defining an antique. Nevada Revised Statute 647.012 reads, “‘Antique’ means a unique object of personal property that is not less than 60 years old and has special value primarily because of its age.” That makes any goods younger than 60 years non-antiques. They are simply secondhand goods, and secondhand goods dealers are the ones required by law to get background checks. In other words, secondhand dealers need the background checks and antique dealers do not, and because collectibles dealers usually have a mix of both types of goods, they must undergo the expense of the background checks.

As a result of that state law, Reno must require the fingerprint checks for vendors and show organizers. It’s unlikely that the law was aimed at pawnbrokers because Nevada Revised Statutes defines both secondhand dealers and pawnbrokers very clearly and separately.

That still leaves the issue of the new state law. Bowen said the club did not consult with the city when it had the bill drawn up to make sure that it addressed the problem.

But the city—not Bowen—was involved after the bill was introduced and had several opportunities to get the measure amended. The City of Reno had half a dozen lobbyists at the 2009 Nevada Legislature, and at least one of them, Alexis Miller, was involved with Senate Bill 193. Her name appears in the minutes of a committee hearing on the bill.

What the bill did was strike antique dealers from the definition of secondhand dealers. It did not change or remove the 60-year threshold for defining antiques, which turned out to be an important oversight.

The city had 13 days to scrutinize the bill before the first committee hearing. At that hearing, it could have offered any suggestions or amendments for changes. It was not a brief hearing—at least nine people, including Miller, testified, and Miller said she would get back to the committee with information on a question that arose during the hearing. After that, the city had another 17 days until the next hearing, at which Sen. Maggie Carlton, the committee chair, made comments that were paraphrased in the minutes as, “There were no proposed amendments to S.B. 193. The City of Reno has withdrawn its concerns.” The committee then recommended passage, and the Senate approved the bill.

Then the bill went to the Assembly, and the city had a whole new set of opportunities to rework the bill. The Assembly committee dealt with the bill on May 11 and May 15, and the city did not offer changes to the bill. Sen. Matthews was characterized in the minutes as saying that there was no opposition from the City of Reno. If the club and the city had been talking, the later problem might have been anticipated.

One person who testified on the Assembly side, Gay Elliker, said two smaller shows—a doll show and a button show—have been moved to Sparks.

“I know this is frustrating,” Bowen said. “We have tried to help and have said, if you wanted to try and make a limitation so that only antiques are sold, none of this [background checks] has to happen.”

That’s about all she can legally do, but most venders at the collectibles shows are likely to have both pre- and post-60 year merchandise, and with some goods there is no way to determine age. As things stand, the club will probably have to wait for next year’s legislature for a remedy.