Let's get basic

Until the recent dispute over the overlap between city councilmember duties and mayoral duties, it’s doubtful that many Reno residents knew that the city charter says that the mayor “[s]hall not have any administrative duties.”

If any voters now feel misled, they should. If a city has a mayor, the title should not be deceptive, and the person in the post should be more than a mere figurehead, even when—as in the case of Mayor Bob Cashell—his personal skills overcome that assigned impotence.

The ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court that the mayor is just another member of the council gives the community an opportunity to come to grips with the role of its municipal governments, and it should go beyond simply giving the mayor some duties. Let’s look at basic, fundamental changes. Reno government is a product of a half-century of evolution, a patchwork of this change and that reform. In the case of the mayor, the city has gone from a strong mayor to a weak mayor appointed by the City Council to a weak mayor elected by the public. This is no way to create government.

The community—that’s the community as a whole, not just reformers or not just businesspeople—should consider two changes: Making the mayor and the councilmembers full-time jobs and getting rid of the city manager post. At the moment, the person who runs the city is accountable not to voters but to the Council.

Municipal government—and that includes the county commission, and Sparks Council and mayor—have become in this valley focuses of power where accountability is dissipated and difficult to achieve. Bureaucracies like the Regional Transportation Commission, the Airport Authority, and the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority operate with few or no elected members, out of the flow of accountability. If say, RSCVA screws up, the voter’s ability is limited by the fact that only one or two members of that voter’s municipal government sit on the RSCVA board, which is usually made up mostly of flacks and casinos execs. As the RSCVA evolved from a body concerned with improving quality of life in the valley to a body concerned with keeping the casino industry happy, what could the voters do?

Some believe that those outlying agencies with their nebulous and unaccountable board memberships are necessary because local governments will not consolidate. Nonsense. Making our governing bodies full time, and then staffing the board of those outlying agencies entirely with elected, accountable officials from the three governments will cut the influence of PR agencies/lobbyists and the casinos and put local governments back in charge of their own houses. It would not only empower those governments, it would empower the voters. If Reno’s mayor instead of a city manager runs the city, the voters will have a better handle on how to control their own lives. If the membership of the board of Airport Authority is no longer shielded from the voters, that board will be better for it. For instance, if elected officials had held down those AA seats, the 1970s decision not to move the airport to Stead or Fernley and open up the Truckee Meadows might not have been made, and sprawl into those two regions could well have been prevented.

For decades, at every level of government, the voters have been shut out, as though election and democracy are undesirable elements of our society. Numerous posts that were once elective no longer are. It’s time to look at reinstating democracy in local government.