Rigdon on the rails

It’s not about digging a big ditch through downtown Reno anymore. It’s about trust—the trust citizens put in their city government. And right now, many have lost that trust.

“People who even see benefits to the trench are not pleased with how the project is being handled,” said Dave Rigdon, Reno city councilman. “They are very, very distrustful of the way information has been put forward. What you have is not just a trench project, but a mentality in City Hall that’s very defensive, that says, ‘We’re going to build a moat around city hall and do the project no matter what.’ “

The Reno City Council will vote Nov. 6 to decide whether to proceed with the trench project. If the council gives the go-ahead, the bidding process will move forward with the number of bidding contractors narrowed down to four.

I met Rigdon downtown a couple of weeks ago, just after the Reno City Council had voted in favor of hiring a lobbyist to go after more federal funding for the ReTrac project. Rigdon supported the move, though he questioned its timing.

“The question is, why did we wait so long to pursue this?” he asked.

Rigdon, in previous debates, voted against hiring a public relations firm to build a positive image of downtown redevelopment. The councilman has this radical theory about opening government up to the public. Government, in his view, ought not to be run like a business, but as a forum where the public can participate in the decision-making process.

That’s a contrast to a view of government as a place to get stuff done, doing whatever it takes to achieve its goals.

“I think that both viewpoints are valid,” he said. “Most businesses are run in a top-down manner, very authoritative. Those at the top make the decisions, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

This method can be efficient. But it’s not how Rigdon would run the governmental zoo.

“We protect the process,” he said. “That’s why we have open-meeting laws, so people know what’s going on. People have a say and feel like participants in the process.”

Results of a telephone survey of registered Reno voters showed that 58 percent of them disagreed with the city of Reno’s plan to relocate the railroad into a trench in downtown Reno. Six out of 10 voters said the project was not important to them or their families.

Though the city has held hundreds of public meetings on the ReTrac concept, Rigdon said those meetings weren’t as much about gathering public responses as they were about pitching the project.

“[The city] decided what to do and held 200 meetings saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ “ he said. “No wonder people feel disaffected.”

Rigdon said that the issue might have been better handled if officials had sought to garner the public’s ideas from the start.

"Tell people that we have a problem. There’s been a railroad merger. That might mean more trains. Then open it up for discussion. That gives people a chance to at least participate in a meaningful way."