Does Washoe County have a vendetta against this man?
Board of Equalization member Gary Schmidt gets put on the defensive
There are 10 things everyone should know about Gary Schmidt. First, he is occasionally gruff, with a belittling demeanor and a combative attitude made even more irritating by a nasal voice. Second, he is demanding toward his employees. Third, he is constitutionally unable to make a quick point. Fourth, he has researched the appropriate Nevada Revised Statute before he opens his mouth. Fifth, if he doesn’t like what you say, how you treat him or the results of your interaction, he will sue your ass off. Sixth, he does not see himself as an irritation but as a normal citizen going about normal citizen business. Seventh, he really likes dogs. Eighth, he works on his own timetable. Ninth, he believes that government workers are his employees. Finally, he can be extremely amiable—charming, even.
(Full disclosure: I was Gary Schmidt’s employee from 1984 to 1987 at the Reindeer Lodge on Mount Rose Highway. Since room and board at the lodge were part of my pay, when he fired me over a minor disagreement about a dog, he made me homeless.)
As the Washoe County Board of Commissioners prepares to meet on May 17 to decide “Possible action, including but not limited to, censure, suspension, removal, or no action of Board of Equalization member Gary Schmidt for malfeasance [unlawful behavior] in office or neglect of duty pursuant to NRS 361.340(7),” the question arises, who’d this guy piss off?
Actually, that agenda item is phrased a bit nicer than one that appeared on the March 8 commissioners’ agenda, when the matter was first scheduled: “Closed session to consider the character, alleged misconduct, professional competence or physical or mental health of Board of Equalization member Gary Schmidt.”
What could make the county commissioners take this extraordinary—perhaps unique—action against a board member duly appointed and lauded by them? What did Gary Schmidt do to deserve this kind of treatment? Schmidt may be a bit eccentric or even obnoxious, but it’s serious business for commissioners to attack, threaten or punish a member of an ostensibly independent, quasi-judicial board.
In fact, it appears they have never done so before—at least, not in the recent history of Washoe County. The most similar situation the county manager’s office could provide was when Wanda Wright was scheduled for a commission hearing before she resigned from the Warm Springs Citizen Advisory Board in December 1999.
What did Gary Schmidt do? The answer may be as simple as “his duty.” On the other hand, the answer may be, “He abused his power as a member of the Washoe County Board of Equalization and acted like an asshole.”
“Of course, this is really a vendetta,” Schmidt says. “It’s because of my public-records [activism], my comments and my open-meeting-law complaints, etc.”
The road to censure
Schmidt is a fairly fit-looking, 61-year-old man. He’s about 6 feet tall, probably 190 pounds. He has wrinkles of the sort that come from time in the sun, crow’s feet and flinty blue eyes. His smile broadens openly when he’s happy or crowing at his own success; his brow furrows when he’s pissed off. He’s got a white beard and wild, gray hair that he wears in a comb-over, which is why he tends toward ball caps. He’s an old-school Republican who proudly proclaims that he voted for Ronald Reagan nine times.
He’s financially independent, getting that way in the early days of computers, then by promoting rock ‘n’ roll shows in California and Nevada and owning nightclubs. Now he owns a pistachio farm in California and has various other business interests.
His favorite hobby could be loosely described as “collecting,” as anyone who has ever been to an auction in Northern Nevada can attest. Folks who have taken him to court over his “collection” on display outside the Reindeer would be less charitable.
That’s his favorite hobby. But his passion is open public records—that is, the paperwork that government generates whenever the lowliest counter person to the highest elected official lifts a finger. In Nevada, public-records laws generally fall under NRS 239, and Schmidt, through his battles and lawsuits against local government, has become an acknowledged expert in Nevada public-records laws.
Schmidt has offered this definition of the law: “Unless a record is declared by state or federal law to be confidential, the record will be available for review, disclosure and copying at any service counter at any government agency during normal business hours.”
The “battles” have direct bearing on the issue that will be before the county commissioners next week, and are the reason, Schmidt believes, certain members of county government have a vendetta against him personally. Those members are County Manager Katy Singlaub, Assistant District Attorney Melanie Foster and District Attorney Richard Gammick. Madelyn Shipman, a former assistant district attorney, also has some reasons not to like the guy.
“Do I have a grudge against Gary?” asks Singlaub. “Absolutely not. I find Gary to have many good things that he shares with us on the public records, and many things that are inaccurate. Gary presents a lot of challenges for staff because he requires a lot of resources that we have to devote to responding to his requests; that means we can’t be providing services to the 383,000 other people that we need to serve.”
Schmidt’s battles against Washoe County go back to May 1991, when he filed suit against the county for rezoning his property on Mt. Rose. In fact, Schmidt has sued the government more times than he can remember or document (although, for purposes of his defense before the commissioners, he produced a 3-inch thick, three-ring binder containing hundreds of court documents). He often wins his lawsuits, but bureaucrats’ efforts to hide their actions through denial of Schmidt’s public-record requests created “Gary Schmidt, citizen public-records activist.”
Because the District Attorney’s Office represents the county and its departments, his principal opponent over the last 10 years has been Dick Gammick by proxy—hence his issues with three of the four people on that list of possible grudge holders.
Gammick, too, says he doesn’t belong on the list.
“I have absolutely no vendetta against Gary Schmidt,” Gammick said. “Gary Schmidt is in the habit of causing disturbances and placing demands on personnel in the county. He does not conduct himself in a professional or courteous manner at times, and, as I have told Gary Schmidt himself, as a member of the public, he is welcome to come into this office when he has business here. He is welcome to do whatever the law allows him to do, but he will do it in a courteous and polite manner and treat people with respect, and if he can’t do that then he is not welcome. It’s as simple as that.”
On the other hand, there’s no law that says citizens must act with a particular decorum when approaching their government. Think of it like this: Schmidt is a recalcitrant bureaucrat’s perfect storm: rich, smart, knowledgeable, irritating, aggressive, semi-young and semi-retired.
Over the years, his sorties have forced Washoe County and the city of Reno formally to adopt new public-records procedures.
But that’s all water under the bridge, right?
Not so fast.
Becoming a target
Two things happened in the fairly recent past that Schmidt believes put him under the gun.
First, on Aug. 25, 2004, his home burned in the Andrew Lane fire. He charges that county fire and police officials kept him away from his property for an hour and a half before the flames reached his house, although they allowed reporters in to cover the fire, as photos in the Reno Gazette-Journal showed. If he’d been allowed to turn on his sprinklers, he believes, his house wouldn’t have burned.
He lost virtually everything in his home (see favorite hobby), and one of his three dogs died. The loss of that dog, Xion, hurt him more than all the rest of it combined. He, of course, filed public-records requests looking for documented evidence of malfeasance or incompetence.
Second, on Jan. 11, just four days after assistant district attorney Madelyn Shipman retired, and without any public discussion, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners was to vote on a $50,000 (plus pre-approved expenses) five-month lobbying contract for Shipman. Schmidt moved into high gear, organizing against the contract, believing it was prima-facie proof of an illegal backroom deal—had to be, there was no public discussion. In the face of Schmidt’s onslaught, Shipman withdrew her name.
Remember, when discussions of vendettas come up, Schmidt and Shipman had been battling in the courts for years.
Schmidt believes that—in tandem with a decade of activism—these particular actions and requests are what put him in hot water.
A taxing situation
The Washoe County Commission appointed Schmidt to the Board of Equalization in 2003. The BOE is basically a property-tax appeals board. The appointment seemed to signal a new day for Schmidt: Instead of beating government, he was joining it. He and other members of the Board of Equalization were even given commendations for their service by commissioners on March 16, 2004.
But then Schmidt may have stepped over the line. On Feb. 10, at a BOE hearing, Schmidt asked that Deputy District Attorney Terry Shea be sworn in before he presented a written opinion and testimony before the board. Since district attorneys are not typically sworn in, this request caused a momentary stir, although Schmidt is unsure why, claiming that county codes require that everyone swear in.
Still, it angered the board’s chairman, Steve Sparks. Sparks and Shea, a few minutes later, went looking for a county commissioner to complain to. A staffer overheard their discussion and interceded, bringing Singlaub into the mix. That intercession resulted in Singlaub sending the following e-mail to Commissioners Bonnie Weber and Robert Larkin, which Schmidt got through a public-records request:
“I just met with Mr. Sparks, the Chairman of the Board of Equalization, and he is going to quit if we don’t do anything about Gary Schmidt immediately. Gary’s vendetta against the entire District Attorney’s office is completely interfering with the proceedings. Today, when Deputy DA Terry Shea tried to introduce a written opinion, Gary grilled him regarding stating names of everyone he works for, etc., and wouldn’t allow him to speak to the relevant facts of the case. This has degenerated into complete obstruction of a fair hearing for the appellants.
“I have asked the DA’s Office to give me legal options immediately. I would advise you to call for a Closed Personnel Session for Gary with the Board of County Commissioners. We have done this once before, to my knowledge, when I believe we censured an appointee for obstruction and interfering with the proper execution of duties. It was very nasty, and will be in this case, but we’ve got to exercise some control over his behavior. As soon as I find out what the DA advises is allowed (and that will be contested by Gary, whatever it is) we will move forward immediately. Chairman Sparks understands that we can only do what the law allows, but I assured him we will take whatever action the law allows.”
One more pertinent fact: Early this year, 1,230 Incline Village property owners filed a mass appeal of their property values, and the BOE, led by Schmidt, granted an 8 percent reduction in their taxable land values on Feb. 17. This vote cost the county nearly a half-million dollars in lost property taxes.
Perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing, the county hand-delivered a notice announcing a “closed session to consider [Schmidt’s] character, alleged misconduct, professional competence or physical or mental health,” two days before the crucial hearings on Incline Village residents’ property taxes—a clear effort to intimidate him, Schmidt says.
Not for public consumption
A closed personnel hearing on Schmidt was scheduled for March 8. Schmidt filed suit in district court to stop it, basically on the grounds that, because he’s a quasi-judicial appointee, he’s not an employee of the county. He also objected to having a closed hearing. Judge Jerry Polaha refused to stop the hearing because, until the commissioners took action, they hadn’t hurt Schmidt’s reputation.
The closed session, according to a transcript prepared by the AG’s Office, was underwhelming. While it began somewhat comically, with Schmidt attempting to bring his “personal assistant,” Sue Voyles of the Reno Gazette-Journal, into the hearing, Schmidt’s attorney Glade Hall and Commissioner Pete Sferrazza weren’t there, so it was quick.
Steve Sparks testified. His testimony, according to the transcript, loosely mirrored the description given in Singlaub’s e-mail message. He made no claims of dereliction of duty or malfeasance in office. Sparks basically said that he thought that Schmidt was unnecessarily muddling the record of the tax hearings, which often end up in court later. He never filed a formal, written complaint against Schmidt.
In a later interview, he would repeat these views—basically that he wanted Schmidt to stick closer to the topics of hearings.
“I went up and talked to the county manager, brought up the situation, and they took it from there. I really don’t know if that constitutes a formal complaint or not. I have done whatever I want to do at this point. It’s up to the commissioners. If you listened to the hearing on SNCAT the other day, to me, the biggest thing, the most telling thing, was when Mr. Glade Hall said, ‘Well, you knew he was an activist when you appointed him. Why are you pursuing this now if you knew he was an activist when you appointed him?’ … I really don’t think he should be kicked off the board. That was not my purpose.
“I didn’t think that Gary should be using the platform of a hearing, which that was on that day, to get into the record something that was outside the purview of what we were hearing. It would be OK in a workshop-type basis, just not there and then.”
So, to sum up, the supposed injured party, Steve Sparks, doesn’t appear to feel injured; in fact, he lauded Schmidt’s service on the board—except for that instance when Schmidt tried to get a perceived conflict of interest within the District Attorney’s Office into the record.
Katy Singlaub doesn’t have a vendetta against Schmidt—not even in the case of Maddy Shipman’s contract: “I’m a big girl. You win some, you lose some.”
And if Schmidt’s nemesis Richard Gammick doesn’t believe there’s a vendetta against Schmidt, it would seem that any grudge against Schmidt exists only in Schmidt’s head.
But then, there’s the matter of the April 19 open Washoe County Commission meeting, when for an hour and a half Schmidt’s attorney, Glade Hall, and the commissioners bandied about Schmidt’s fate.
In that meeting, it became obvious that there is something … weird … going on. No victim, no evidence presented in open session, no witnesses against, no charges, and yet Schmidt’s name is being dragged through the mud, and he’s up for possible dismissal, apparently for asking that an attorney swear to tell the truth.
The most concrete evidence against Schmidt was a 24-minute excerpted videotape of the Board of Equalization’s Feb. 9 and 10 meetings, which four commissioners saw at the closed hearing but didn’t have available during the open session.
The hearing must be seen to be believed (VHS tapes are available from SNCAT), but here are some highlights:
A diffident Commissioner David Humke misrepresented the contents of several hundred e-mails that were sent in support of Schmidt: “They don’t even talk about Schmidt’s performance. They talk about issues dealing with excessive property assessments.”
Board Chairwoman Bonnie Weber agreed with Humke about the contents of the e-mails, the vast majority of which supported Schmidt, but then reiterated several times, “I’m not an attorney.” The only thing she repeated more often was “You’re out of order” to fellow Commissioner Pete Sferrazza, in one of the more vitriolic exchanges that have taken place at the dais for several years—at least when it wasn’t a joint Reno-Sparks-Washoe County hearing. And all Sferrazza was doing was asking where the evidence against Schmidt was. (In an interview conducted after this story was written, Commissioner Weber said she saw a problem with the BOE that needed to be addressed by the whole Commission, and she has no ax to grind against Schmidt: “That’s simply it, I saw an issue for the Board of County Commissioners to deal with. I don’t know where it will go from here—maybe nowhere; maybe somewhere.”
Bob Larkin offered a dissertation about his experience: “My … experience is in dealing with personnel at the highest level of, not only academia, but of corporations. [It] deals with hiring and the dismissal of CFOs, COOs, CEOs, for various types of transgressions that those individuals may make. I bring 25 years of that experience to bear today. … The performance that I have witnessed in the tapes is not conductive to the Board of Equalization’s business, which is to hear complaints from citizens against the values of the Assessor’s Office. It is clear in my view that there has been a transgression by Mr. Schmidt, and that transgression needs to be punished.”
So this is all about punishing bad manners? All without an accuser or formal, written charges?
Assistant DA Melanie Foster wrote a memo to the board, dated March 7, that said “a showing of malfeasance would require proof of unlawful activity. … Neglect of duty can be shown by a careless or willful lack of due diligence in the performance of the duties required by law, a disregard for rules of conduct, bias or misuse of office, or conduct detrimental to good order or discipline. Neglect of duty cannot be shown by an isolated occurrence or act.”
It’s questionable whether the isolated act of asking an attorney to be sworn in is cause for punishment. More likely it just shows a lack of decorum.
(Incidentally, Foster says she doesn’t have a vendetta against Schmidt, either. “Oh, God no,” she said. “Gary and I have been doing business for years. Gary is a very active citizen here in Washoe County; certainly, though, we don’t always agree on everything.")
Both Jim Galloway and Sferrazza seemed utterly befuddled by the vehemence with which the other commissioners were attacking Schmidt and the commitment they seemed to have to taking action against him.
“I guess for the County Commission to conduct a hearing and spend all this time, to me there should be at least some written document requesting it—other than the chairman of the commission writing a notice that we’re having a hearing,” said Sferrazza. “There should be some complaint by somebody in writing specifying what the charges are, as a matter of simple courtesy. As a matter of due process anyway, we should require the charges be in writing. I really have a problem with this Star Chamber type of proceeding.”
As for Glade Hall, he’s convinced there’s a vendetta against his client.
“I think there is a vendetta,” Hall said. “I think they don’t like Gary. I think that he’s very effective in what he does, unlike some of the other people who show up there and shout their objections. Gary makes his objections, but he is articulate, he is intelligent, he is informed. He’s going to go out of his way to inform and educate himself, and they don’t like it because he calls them on the carpet.”
If all this seems hard to believe, it’s easy enough to check out. It’s all down at the Country Clerk’s Office, available during business hours for copying or simple perusal—on the public record. At deadline, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to meet again on May 17 to take up Gary Schmidt’s future with the Board of Equalization.