Just say, ‘Yes’

The Washoe County Commission gave itself a black eye with its treatment of Gary Schmidt, a member of the Board of Equalization. Tuesday, the Commissioners decided to censure Schmidt “with training.” But that result is almost beside the point when the bigger issues are examined.

Schmidt, as detailed last week in the RN&R’s cover story, “Does Washoe County have a vendetta against this man?” has been a thorn in the side of county officials for more than a decade. His demands on the resources of county agencies and legal requests for public records are well-known to county elected officials and staffers.

But those demands, and the feelings staffers have toward Schmidt, are neither here nor there. The fact is, our government is supposed to exist by and for the people, and to behave with a certain surliness, as long as it doesn’t become threatening, is a person’s First Amendment right. The reciprocal is not true. Government employees must be courteous when approached by their employers—the taxpayers.

To switch gears for a second, that “by and for the people” clause has two aspects, and one—by the people—suggests that regular people should also participate in the process of government. It’s become a cliché that citizens won’t participate in government—many don’t even vote—and when a guy like Schmidt steps forward to take on the unenviable responsibility of standing between angry citizens and the Washoe County Assessor’s Office, he’s to be lauded.

Schmidt, in fact, was lauded by Washoe County Commissioners on March 16, 2004, when he and the other members of the Board of Equalization received commendations for their dedication.

So for one Board of County Commissioners to appoint an individual to a five-year term, and, after an election, the next Board of Commissioners to come along and decide to drag a dedicated citizen’s name through the mud on trumped-up charges of malfeasance in office or neglect of duty or bias is inexcusable.

Do citizens who accept positions on any boards in the county now have to worry that if they make decisions that aren’t popular with the Board of County Commissioners they will be subjected to a closed, Star Chamber hearing “to consider the[ir] character, alleged misconduct, professional competence or physical or mental health,” as these commissioners did to Schmidt? Or perhaps they’ll be accused of malfeasance [unlawful behavior] in office or neglect of duty. Or perhaps, after realizing the first two accusations weren’t supportable, some Commissioners will accuse the citizen volunteer of bias against a county department that wasn’t even a party in the dispute (in this instance, interested parties are the Assessor’s Office and the property-tax payer).

It may be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Schmidt’s treatment at the hands of commissioners will likely end up in court. It’s pretty obvious that certain Washoe County staff and elected officials have arbitrarily and capriciously harassed a citizen who deserved better. But the fact is, those of us who now know better than to offer our services to help county government will also suffer the consequences of a government in which dissenting voices are not welcome.