What happens when local governments are stalemated?
Lewis Mumford: “For democracy, in any active sense, begins and ends in communities small enough for their members to meet face to face. Without such units, capable of independent and autonomous action, even the best-contrived central government, state or federal, become party-oriented, indifferent to criticism, resentful of correction, and in the end, all too often, high-handed and dictatorial.”
In the postwar years, as increasing urbanization and the baby boom drove life in the Truckee Meadows, a Washoe County Regional Planning Commission was formed in 1947. Instead of making the county, Reno and Sparks equals on the panel, the new law gave Washoe County a dominant role, which—as the decades passed—became a chronic problem.
In May 1981, the city of Reno pulled out of the RPC. Sparks followed. For the rest of the decade, growth was not coordinated among the three municipalities and it grated on Washoe County Sen. William Raggio.
“[T]hat was a regressive step,” he said. “In fact, it was a step backwards in planning for all of Washoe County. From that point on, for a number of years, the individual local governments—the county of Washoe, city of Reno, and the city of Sparks—went off in different directions or at least not in symmetric directions in regional planning efforts.”
What made the problem worse was that in a period when controlled growth advocates and pro-growth advocates were debating the future of the Truckee Meadows, in the absence of the RPC, pro-growthers were given a privileged position in Reno’s city government. Raggio was a pro-business figure, but his political preferences didn’t conceal from him the consequences of haphazard planning.
“For all intents and purposes … the Reno/Sparks/Washoe County population is largely in a bowl,” he said. “It is largely a cohesive population within the confines of the mountains surrounding our urban communities. It makes little sense to impose restrictions, limitations, and regulations which are tied to artificial geographic boundaries.”
Raggio joined with fellow legislators Sue Wagner, Jan Evans, and Bob Sader as a subcommittee to draft legislation mandating a return of regional planning to the Truckee Meadows. They were two Republicans and two Democrats, and they met with all their fellow Washoe legislators regularly on the issue. On April 25, 1989, Senate Bill 367 was introduced by Wagner.
“The subcommittee met in-house to discuss the proposal on six occasions,” Wagner told the Senate a month later. “We met three times on a working level with representatives of local governments. In addition, the subcommittee has reported to the full Washoe County legislative delegation twice. … The Senate Committee on Government Affairs held a special evening hearing in Reno to take testimony from all interested parties. At this point in the process, the bill before you has been through eight drafts.”
The measure was approved with unanimous votes in both the Senate and the Assembly. The new Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency has been operating now for just over a quarter of a century as a result of decision-making in Carson City that many Truckee Meadows critics felt should not have been needed.
Something similar happened this year at the Nevada Legislature.Playing with fire
In 2000, Washoe County and Reno formed consolidated fire services, with Reno actually administering the new system. But after 11 years, the Washoe County Commission voted (four to one, with Commissioner Kitty Jung the dissenter) to end the agreement on July 1, 2012. Members of the Reno City Council and Reno Mayor Bob Cashell spent that year trying to head off deconsolidation, and Cashell became convinced the county commissioners were trying to break the firefighters’ union, using a dispute over whether fire crews should have three (county) or four (city) members.
The commissioners seemed to encourage the notion that labor relations were at issue, as when County Commissioner David Humke said, “With all due respect, I want nothing to do with your labor agreement.”
The controversy provoked some of the worst publicity for local agencies since St. Mary’s Hospital and Washoe Medical Center battled over which facility would get to have a helicopter ambulance and were forced by local officials to share the service. Conflicts over which agencies fought which fires and whether the nearest station would respond, plus headlines like “Reno to Washoe County: We can fight our own fires” kept the issue alive for three years.
Finally, at this year’s Legislature, Washoe Sen. Ben Kieckhefer decided a legislative solution was needed. He introduced a measure, S.B. 185, that even included language for the proposed law about the unseemly situation in Washoe County (“infighting that has continuously occurred for several years between the entities”; “failure of the local governments”).
In committee testimony, Kieckhefer—like Raggio, a Washoe Republican—said a home where his own children sometimes spent the night with their grandparents had been destroyed by fire and the nearest fire engine was not the one that responded.
“There were multiple city of Reno fire engines that could have responded more quickly if they had been dispatched immediately,” Kieckhefer told his fellow legislators. “In the end, the house was a total loss. I will not try to Monday-morning quarterback what the outcome would have been if the other engines had been dispatched immediately. I am not qualified to do so, and I certainly do not want to undermine the heroic efforts of the firefighters who were on scene dealing with the blaze. … What makes me think about it continuously is that the fire started in the garage, and on the second floor above the garage were the bedrooms where my children slept when they stayed at their grandparents’ house. I shudder to think. … My children were not there at the time.”
Kieckhefer didn’t insist on enactment of his bill, saying he would hold it in abeyance to give the local governments time to come to their own agreement. But county commissioners talked about “dating” before they got married again, which satisfied no one. The senator turned his bill loose, and it passed both houses, drawing only a single no vote from 63 lawmakers.
Kieckhefer said he was reluctant to believe that the two local governing bodies’ inability to work together on this particular issue said anything fundamental about government. “Politics is embroiled into every level of government and clearly politics and personalities had reached a point where they [local officials] couldn’t even really discuss the issues,” he said.
Kieckhefer said he had discussed the issue early on with another legislator—Assemblymember David Bobzien, a Democrat. But then Bobzien left the legislature to take a seat on the Reno City Council, which opposed Kieckhefer’s measure even though Reno was more intent on re-consolidating than was Washoe.
Local government is closest to the public, and it is tempting to idealize it as the level that works the best.
“It’s also the most childlike,” said political scientist Fred Lokken, who in addition to his role as an academic also once chaired regional planning in the area. “As you move up, it’s a different kind of politics, more developed.”
That’s not an easy case to make in this particular year, with this particular Legislature, but nevertheless there is a history that tends to support it.
“We always believed in more government amalgamation than in other places,” Lokken said, pointing to the merging of Carson City with Ormsby County and law enforcement consolidation in Clark County.
“In the common sense of working together, they all have parks, they all have fire services,” he said.
In addition, the dynamics of state and local politics are different in Nevada than elsewhere, Lokken points out. “In a state like Nevada, the state constitution allows greater intervention than in other states,” he said. Newcomers familiar with other state governments are often surprised by how little home rule there is in Nevada. Perhaps local government pushes boundaries in Nevada because of it.