Reforming democracy with less democracy

Nevada’s Legislature looks at stripping the public of the power to elect many of its officials

Sparks City Attorney Chet Adams has become the focal point of discussions about whether to elect city attorneys

Sparks City Attorney Chet Adams has become the focal point of discussions about whether to elect city attorneys

Related stories this week:
Government “reforms”

“Why so many freaking questions?” asked Bruce Green of Las Vegas in 2002 when asked by a reporter what he thought of the long Nevada ballot. The headline of the story in which he was quoted was “Ballot to test Nevadans’ stamina.”

That was 2002. Two years later, Washoe County registrar of voters Dan Burk watched people voting and noted, “It’s taking people about four or five minutes to vote.”

For Nevadans burdened by the onerous task of voting, there is good news: The Nevada Legislature is on the job. Lawmakers are considering stripping voters of the right to elect regents, judges and—in Reno and Sparks—city attorneys. Under still another piece of legislation, voters would be permitted to continue electing state school board members who would be stripped of their authority to set education policy—which some critics see as a step toward abolishing the elected board.

Making elected officials appointive has been a slow and steady postwar “good government” trend, often sold as “reform.” At the end of World War II, Nevadans elected 10 executive branch state officials who ran statewide. Today, they elect six. Reno and Sparks are the only two cities that still elect city attorneys. Analogous officials at the county and state level—district attorney and attorney general—are elected.

One measure this year would make state judges appointive at the supreme court and district levels and, if a state appeals court is ever approved, at that intermediate level, as well. The legal establishment has wanted appointed judges for many years but has not been able to get the lawmakers to approve it for a public vote. The creation of a court of appeals has twice been proposed by the legislature, in 1980 and 1992, and rejected by voters both times.

The changes in electing judges and regents would require amendments to the Nevada Constitution since those officials are created by that document. That would ultimately mean a vote of the public.

City attorneys and the Nevada board of education are created by statute, so no constitutional amendment is required to make them elected or change their duties. Whether a vote of the public would be required would be up to the legislature. Sparks has twice voted to keep its city attorney an elected office.

Dueling municipalities
The city attorney measure, Assembly Bill 570, was requested by the Reno City Council, though it has become ensnarled in Sparks politics.

Nevada voters have been getting a steadily shrinking number of offices to vote on at election time.

Photo By David Robert

In a dispute last year, the Sparks City Council—discontented with the legal advice it got from City Attorney Chet Adams—wanted authority to shop around for different advice than it got from the independently elected city attorney. Legislation was introduced by Washoe County Sen. Maurice Washington to allow the council to do that, and Sen. Randolph Townsend reportedly planned to attach the Reno council’s legislation to Washington’s bill—Senate Bill 101—as an amendment.

Instead, Townsend’s Reno council’s measure was introduced as a separate bill, 570, in the Assembly. Adams has accused the Sparks council of being behind the maneuver. Sparks city employees have denied this, but no explanation has been given of why a supposedly Reno-sponsored measure seeks changes in Sparks government. (The Reno council can already seek different legal opinions if a majority of the council agrees.)

At a banquet on March 22, Reno City Attorney John Kadlic said of the Reno bill, “We elect district attorneys. We elect the Nevada attorney general. Why shouldn’t we elect city attorneys?” But at a hearing on April 3, Kadlic told lawmakers he has no objection to making city attorneys appointive. Later in an interview, Kadlic said he was yielding to the view of the Reno City Council members and the mayor, whom he regards as his clients. “That’s what the city wants,” Kadlic said. “They would feel comfortable with it. You can make arguments both ways.” He said putting the matter up to a vote of the cities might be wise.

On the bill curbing the authority of the Nevada Board of Education, Sen. Barbara Cegavske of Clark County said it’s a way of increasing the authority of Nevada governors. “We’re trying to streamline and connect the 17 school districts so it’s more compact. The way things are now, the governors don’t feel connected to the educational process. They should be a part of that.”

What’s not clear is what motivation voters would have to bother voting in races for state school board members who do nothing but advise, which is why some officials suspect the proposed change is prelude to abolishing the board entirely.

“I don’t think very much of it, actually,” said former Nevada superintendent of schools Eugene Paslov of the legislation. “There may be problems with the state board, but those are things that the legislature and the board can fix.”

He said there are things the state board does that local boards can do but usually do not, and it’s better that way.

“The state board has a major role in establishing statewide standards—for example, curriculum standards, various requirements, graduation requirements,” he said. “Local school boards can or cannot, will not do that. You have a unifying principle with a state board doing that kind of work. [The state board is] also engaged in teacher licensing, which is an important consideration. Again, a local board could do that, but it’s better, I think, to have some statewide authority do that.”

He said autonomy gives state school officials independence from pressure.

“I hesitate to say you need to keep politics out of education because education and politics are very much involved, but if you abolish them and make it appointed by the governor [or] make it advisory, the tendency would be to make it not only political but partisan.”