Municipal government races 2008

Election 2008: Our look at five city and county races

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Many people in Reno would only be aware that there are local elections coming up on Nov. 4 because they’ve tripped over a political sign in a public right of way. The fact is, local politics have been overshadowed by the presidential election. Still, many of the issues Reno voters have faced in election after election in Northern Nevada will be on the ballot again this year: Perceived uncontrolled growth vs. smart growth, making growth pay for itself vs. growth being paid for by future citizens, change vs. the status quo, and resource-based growth vs. unrestrained growth. (Sensing a theme here?)

The bottom line for this election is that in many of the races, voters are faced with similar candidates who don’t claim major differences in policy. However, there are some who claim to hold positions that they don’t show in their records. There are also some races where the difference in shades of gray is so slight as to give an article about the race a more serious treatment than the candidates themselves have shown.

County commission 1: Harsh vs. Breternitz
Voters in this district have a choice, as long as they vote Republican. The Democrats failed to field a candidate, pitting Republicans Toni Harsh and John Breternitz against each other. This seems to manifest itself on issues, with the candidates in greater agreement than they admit. It’s as though one of them says, “We must grow, though it has to be sustainable growth,” while the other says, “No, we must have sustainable growth, though we have to grow.”

Harsh is the better known of the two, having served a term on the Reno City Council from 2000 to 2004, but she also faces a perception that she is less than resolute after withdrawing from a reelection battle for Council in 2004. She says it was not a choice—that while she disliked the rancor on the City Council, the actual reason she pulled out was that she became the primary caregiver for a brother with Alzheimer’s, and at the same time, she took over the family business.

On the City Council, Harsh tended to support what she called managed or sustainable growth policies, and she is now supporting the county citizens’ initiative petition tying growth to available water. That measure will appear on the ballot in November.

“I certainly believe we are going to grow,” Harsh says. “We need the jobs. I want my children to be able to find jobs here, work here, their children, as well. My concern is to have quality growth and that we can sustain it.”

Breternitz is a retired Reno architect who, as might be expected since he comes from a development field, touts his growth credentials and faults his opponent for what he calls her “no growth” policies. Harsh has trouble recognizing her own policies when they are stated by Breternitz—she prefers the term “managed” or “sustainable” growth. And Breternitz himself makes a bow to political reality, being careful not to describe himself as a growth advocate—the italics in this statement were in his vocal emphasis:

“I believe that the county can go a fairly long way to having an impact on both that local and personal economy by finding efficiencies locally in government, dealing with issues with a little bit more businesslike state of mind, cutting through red tape so that businesses can do what they do best, and that’s put people to work. I don’t think that’s necessarily a strong point for my opponent. I think my opponent also is very much by history kind of supporting no growth. And I think in this community you can see right now with our economy and the way it is that no growth is not very fun. … It’s not doing much for our services that our local governments are providing or jobs for the people in the community. So I think we’ve got to have a little bit of growth, kind of a sustainable, incremental kind of a growth like we did [in the] mid ‘90s.”

Kitty Jung chats before the start of a County Commission meeting. Neal Cobb is challenging her for the district 3 commission race.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Thus Breternitz describes himself as only supporting “sustainable” growth while criticizing his opponent, who has been known for precisely that policy.

Unlike other critics of the city of Reno’s annexation and sphere-of-influence policies, Harsh is not harshly critical of those policies, perhaps because she sat on the City Council herself. She says openness and inclusion of the public in governing are a remedy for those conflicts.

“That open discussion, making sure that we have a full discussion. … This is a time when we have a downturn on building, we’ve slowed down—certainly a good time to look at how we are going to be moving into the future.”

Again, Breternitz takes a similar stance while phrasing it differently:

“I think the cities and the counties really do need to work together, and they’re starting to. … I do think that we could go a long way to kind of cut through some of these controversies, fighting over annexation, if the communication level were up. And I think right now, well, we would have a better chance of doing that if I were in there than if my opponent were in there.”

County commission 3: Cobb v. Jung
Kitty Jung is a living embodiment of Nevada’s terrific population growth and turnover, a resident who arrived in Nevada just nine years ago to take a teaching position at Truckee Meadows Community College and now sits on the Washoe County Commission.

Neal Cobb, by contrast, is nothing if not the deeply rooted, well-established Nevadan—raised and educated in Reno, tied in to organizations like the Good Old Days Club and the Reno High Alumni Association that reflect traditional residents.

Democrat Jung was appointed to the commission after Pete Sferrazza resigned to accept an appointment as justice of the peace and is now seeking a full term of her own.

Republican Cobb has served on numerous city and county boards and commissions and is now a Washoe County planning commissioner.

Candidate Neal Cobb worked as a volunteer at a Reno High alumni event last month. He seeks the County Commission district 3 seat.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Neal Cobb: “I’ve been serving in an advisory capacity for 16 years, and I’d like to get into a position of actually voting on things.”

On the day we spoke with him he was steaming about a decision by the Washoe County Commission to return a chore to the Planning Commission. The day before, the Planning Commission had delivered its recommendations for development in the south county to the County Commission. They were the product of a year’s work after county commissioners had rejected a previous plan. Cobb was upset because the County Commission told the planners to make several specific changes in the proposed plan instead of just doing it themselves.

“There was no need to send this back to us,” Cobb said. “They knew exactly what they wanted changed—they spelled it out to us. So they should have made a decision.”

If Cobb brings what he considers greater decisiveness to the County Commission, he will also bring greater skepticism toward the city of Reno’s aggressive sprawl. Annexation and the city’s “sphere of influence” policies are something on which he and his opponent agree, though they give different reasons. Cobb thinks Reno’s effort to keep adding to its property tax base is like a pyramid scheme, while Jung says Reno’s sprawl is environmentally destructive.

Cobb: “When you keep pushing out, you have to keep doing it. … It’s the old [robbing] Peter to pay Paul. So what you’re doing, the next influx of cash from your new tax base is in all reality paying for the development that preceded them. And now you have a time frame that is going to catch up with itself, or somebody else has got to pay for the stretching of your services to accommodate [new residents].”

Jung: “I believe that it’s more appropriate for the … infill projects to occur first within the McCarran ring … before they start looking out into the unincorporated county. Again, it just makes more environmental sense, and it makes more economic sense, and it’s more socially sustainable as well, with the cost of oil and gas. I would encourage them to continue to pursue aggressively their infill and infill of the downtown core and to be mindful of the impact of annexing property when it leads to urban sprawl.”

Cobb also says he’s frustrated by a problem most residents don’t even know exists—the maps used by local governments. He says Reno and Sparks are able to use a “one-map” approach to zoning, making zoning map changes without bothering to consult the master plan map and not having to get zoning changes approved by the Regional Planning Commission. But the county must follow a “two-map” procedure that includes both zoning and master plan because the county, unlike the cities, must have Regional Planning Commission approval for zoning changes.

“It’s a matter of a level playing field among Reno, Sparks and Washoe County,” he said.

Jung says one of the reasons she is on the County Commission and wants to stay there is to create jobs—and jobs of a particular type, what she calls “green collar” jobs.

Bob Larkin prepares to call the Washoe County Commission into session. He’s running for reelection in district 4.

Photo By Dennis Myers

“I think that’s going to be one of the most important issues in the next couple of years … [to] tap into those alternative energy resources that we have abundantly here, geothermal, wind, solar, etcetera. And one of those projects that we’re starting up as I speak is the giant wind farm outside Palomino Valley. The reason why I believe this is important is not only will it be the environmentally responsible way in which to start generating the energy that we’re so hungry for, but it also provides the economic incentives so that we can have a workforce that is diversified into the green economy.”

County commission 4: Larkin v. Schmidt
All gadflies are not created equal. Many get little accomplished. Gary Schmidt isn’t one of those. He may annoy those in power, but the noise he has made over the years has penetrated the walls of government and even caused change. On one occasion, the city of Reno set up classes to teach its employees the ins and outs of public records requests. That happened after a city employee refused to give Schmidt a copy of a Harrah’s business license, to the city’s regret. The per-copy cost of photocopying in local government offices is lower because of Schmidt. In 2003, he was even appointed to the county equalization board, which hears property tax appeals. If the county commission, by giving him that appointment, thought to settle him down, it didn’t work—a couple of years later it censured him, an action later overturned by the courts. A week ago, a meeting of the Sparks City Council had to be halted after he and another citizen pointed out that the public had not been properly notified of the meeting under the posting requirements of the state open meeting law.

Why would such a figure want to be in public office?

“I’m offering my service as a kind of payback for the opportunities that have been given me in my lifetime …” he said. “I’ve been involved in county government heavily for a couple decades, been in the county for 35 years, and I’ve watched a lot of ebbs and tides. You know, we have severe problems right now that I think I know and understand. And I also think that the people know and understand them, but the people are being ignored by the officials.”

This last is a sore point for Schmidt. A small thing for him symbolizes one of the problems with county government: The Washoe County Commission under his opponent reduced the amount of time each citizen could have during the public comment period from 3 to 2 minutes. Schmidt says the commission has the shortest public comment period in Nevada, and it speaks to his differences with his opponent, incumbent Bob Larkin. He says members of the public are not even allowed to applaud speakers—unless the commissioners first start the applause.

Schmidt says his differences with Larkin focus on two areas—process and substance. The process as followed by the current commission, he says, is contemptuous of the public, and the public comment period typifies the problem.

“That’s just symbolic—I mean, that’s only a one-minute thing. He’s also extremely disrespectful of the public, antagonizes the public, he discourages the public, and never listens to the public.”

He says he has a variety of disagreements with Larkin on substance—the Ballardini Ranch, lawsuit settlements, the commission’s handling of citizen initiative petitions. He said his biggest disagreement with Larkin is on the notion that growth pays for itself, which Schmidt considers a myth.

“When you have runaway growth, whether it’s sprawl or infill, when you have a big burst of growth, you get this income from the sales tax—from the furniture, and the carpeting, and the new cars that people tend to buy when they’re buying new houses, they’re new people that come into the area. But that’s a one-time shot. … And the governments, all three of them, have been using those revenues to run their daily government.”

Gary Schmidt is running against Bob Larkin for Washoe County Commission in district 4.

Then, when the burst of initial spending dies down after growth happens, he says, local governments have no funding to pay for the negative impacts of growth.

Frequently his positions on substantive issues still come back to process. He complains that regional plan settlement arrangements went around the public hearing process, he objects to the treatment of citizens who came before the commission with petitions.

Bob Larkin, Schmidt’s opponent, is the insider to Schmidt’s outsider. Still in his first term, he became county commission chair a year after joining the board and has held the job ever since. In real life, he’s a flight instructor.

Larkin says he is not disrespectful of the public but that part of his job as commission chair is to maintain decorum when members of the audience—who, he says, sometimes include Schmidt—disrupt meetings. He concedes that the rule on commissioners controlling applause does exist.

Larkin says he has never said what Schmidt quotes him as saying—that growth pays for itself. (He refuses to say whether he thinks it does or does not.) But he does say that he thinks “concurrency"—a requirement that a developer provide an infrastructure facilities plan and timely financing for those facilities—has negated the issue.

He is more comfortable talking about his own reasons for being on the commission than responding to Schmidt. He says he ran for the commission to do four things—to get the Tahoe/Pyramid highway link constructed, get a flood control project authorized by Congress, continue collaboration among local governments, and get a Spanish Springs analysis completed. The first two have not yet been completed, so he wants to continue the effort. He believes that cooperation among the two cities and the counties is working, and he wants to add the school district. And he says the Spanish Springs project is about two years away from completion.

For his second term, if he is reelected, he wants to add another goal—more water resources that are funded by developers as part of new developments.

Reno City Council: At Large: Hascheff

vs. Ward
Politicians running for office often like to complicate their races beyond the matters at hand.

David Ward is running for Reno City Council against Pierre Hascheff. He’s aiming for the “protest vote” of those dissatisfied with the status quo.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

In the race for the At-Large seat on the Reno City Council, challenger David Ward hopes that voters will see this election as a chance to take a stance against the “broken election system.” Ward, 57, is a local business owner (E Media Ad Group) whose public service has been as a boardmember for nonprofit groups, and who served two terms as chair on the Nevada Commission on Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities. He’s going for the protest vote, the voters who are dissatisfied with the way the city is going, who believe elected officials are in the pockets of developers, who believe growth has or will outpace resources like water and roads.

“The election system is broken, and in this campaign, I’m trying to break the cycle of big money, special interest politics,” Ward said. “It has to start somewhere, and I’m throwing down the gauntlet to put the public’s interest first. Because the system is so obviously broken, I’m running as the reform candidate. … We talk about giving lip service. There should be an expression, ‘giving ear service.’ It’s when you allow the public to speak but you don’t actually listen to them or follow them.”

He expands on his ideas for change on his website, Be smart about housing developments and growth; have more careful planning and budgeting; make Reno really green; accelerate downtown renewal; do a better job of listening; show transparency in city government; grow tourism; and promote local shopping/local economy.

“I’d like to see changes that result in an even better community both for Reno businesses and for Reno residents,” said Ward. “I’m a small-business owner myself. I think this is a great place to live, but I think it can be a lot better. I think the issues around [the election] have to do with infill vs. sprawl, has to do with mass transit vs. more crowded roads and creating walkable, livable communities within Reno. … I am pro-growth and pro-development. I just think we need to do a much smarter job with it.”

Sound familiar? In many ways, these are similar to his opponent’s areas of interest in his 15 years on the Reno City Council.

Pierre Hascheff, 53, first joined the Council in 1993. He’s an attorney and an accountant. His public service has focused on government, serving on boards and committees such as Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Governing Board; Oversight Panel for School Facilities; Truckee Meadows Tourism Facility; and the Reno Senior Citizen’s Advisory Board. His website is

Hascheff has the reputation for standing outside the fray at City Hall. When passions were heated—particularly during the days of Mayor Jeff Griffin—and mud was being flung, he avoided the splattering by asking sensible questions and casting balanced votes based on his accounting and law experience.

“Just look at the record,” Hascheff said. “We have continually increased development fees. At my urging we have concurrency now—we require developments to pay their fair share of the development impacts. We just increased development fees through the enterprise fund by over 50 percent. So to suggest that just because somebody gives you a campaign contribution that there’s influence is ridiculous.

“We take care of our citizens. That’s what makes local government fun and a great job. We’re really at Ground Zero with our constituents. It’s about infrastructure, it’s about services, it’s about quality of life. … In the primary, I beat my opponent by almost 2-to-1, which I think means [voters believe] we’re doing a good job.”

Pierre Hascheff seeks reelection to the Reno City Council. He’s known for standing outside the fray at City Hall by favoring sensible questions and balanced voting decisions over drama.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

The real issue in this campaign is simple: Do Renoites believe Pierre Hascheff has done a credible job while on the Council? It’s up to voters to decide if he should be removed and replaced with David Ward because of his part in managing or not managing economic interests and growth in Reno.

Reno City Council 5: Aiazzi v. Melton
A few years ago, there was a good deal of disagreement on the Reno City Council, and the public reacted against it. Today, the Council is more sedate, with members working together well—and candidate Wayne Melton says that’s a danger, that if everyone is in agreement, ideas and programs are not sufficiently examined. His opponent, David Aiazzi, is one of those who made the Council quieter and less battle-prone.

The candidates are both well-known Reno natives. Aiazzi is seeking his fourth term, and Wayne Melton is making his first run for public office.

Aiazzi, who has been known for his support for development and growth, talks mostly in terms of quality of life issues—parks and reduction of the city’s carbon footprint. He says much of his record has been in adding parks and open space to the city and to the area.

He points in his previous terms to “the Truckee River Fund that I set up, a lot of work along the east Truckee River Canyon, some work on TMWA [Truckee Meadows Water Authority], the downtown redevelopment, all the parks and open space in the northwest—we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of acres now that we didn’t have when I started. … a lot of parks but a lot of open spaces that I’ve required developers to give us … that didn’t cost the city anything.” His reference to the Truckee River Canyon includes regional parks at the 102 and McCarran ranches. In the west Truckee River Canyon, he says, “We did a lot of work with the Nature Conservancy west, on that canyon between Verdi and California. We’ve got more to do out there. We’ve preserved thousands of acres out there.”

In another term, Aiazzi says, he would try to have the city serve as a better model.

“The city has to do a lot more on cutting its energy use and being an example to the rest of the businesses in the area.”

Aiazzi, who has spoken favorably about annexing the Winnemucca Ranch development 30 miles north of Reno into the city, has also attacked opponents of that project and its annexation: “These guys aren’t opposed to the Winnemucca Ranch development; they’re opposed to it coming into the city of Reno. … Have you heard from them one time that they’re opposed to the development? No. They’re opposed to it being in the city of Reno.” ("Growing out,” RN&R, May 31, 2007)

Aiazzi said he could not name any differences between himself and Melton: “I don’t know anything about my opponent.”

Melton says he wants the Council to have “diverse opinions and multiple thoughts and considerations rather than just all agreeing on one issue with one voice. … I don’t think it’s healthy when the people that are in our government always seem to speak with one voice on all the major issues that face the community.”

He says as a councilmember he would want to work on public safety issues, citing as one example the Council decision to move a fire station out of the downtown area.

“I don’t think we should keep playing politics with our public safety. … I believe that the firefighters have an excellent point when they note that there have been concerns downtown, specifically taking down the fire station without previously having specific plans and financing to put in a replacement permanent fire station downtown. I think that puts the public in a precarious, dangerous situation. … When we plan public facilities we need to put better thought into it rather than just rushing to get it done and then all speaking with one happy voice. Because speaking with one happy voice is sometimes being in denial of a very serious situation.”

Melton says Aiazzi has never seen a development he didn’t like, yet is emphasizing environment in this campaign. He also says that when Aiazzi four years ago faced his wife, Patty Melton, in the election, Aiazzi liked being identified as a Republican and a George Bush supporter, but that this year he is avoiding the label. Melton is a Democrat.