Up for debate

During a municipal debate, incumbents defended their pro-growth alliances and policies

Candidates Erik Holland, Sharon Zadra and Vivian Freeman debated while in the foreground Kat Kerlin and Brian Burghart (backs to camera) cued the candidates on time remaining.

Candidates Erik Holland, Sharon Zadra and Vivian Freeman debated while in the foreground Kat Kerlin and Brian Burghart (backs to camera) cued the candidates on time remaining.

Photo By David Robert

Reno municipal candidates faced a crowd of about 80 people for a debate last week. Candidates for mayor and City Council were paired up to discuss their respective races, and there was an incumbent-versus-challenger tone to the event at the Nevada Museum of Art.

The challengers hammered away at the incumbents about urban sprawl and pro-business stances.

Battle lines between incumbents and challengers were apparent in the audience at the debate, which was sponsored by the Reno News & Review. Twenty members of the carpenter’s union staunchly supported incumbent candidates whose policies they believe have helped construction trades. Clad in blue union shirts, they clapped in support of pro-growth statements and grumbled when challengers responded. Ten attendees, who brought signs supporting Scott Kelley in his attempt to oust Dwight Dortch from Reno City Council, cheered for the challengers.

Incumbent Mayor Bob Cashell and challenger Erik Holland debated respectfully but differed on their visions for Reno.

Moderator Dennis Myers questioned candidates about the area’s high housing costs. Cashell, who’s confident that the Growth Task Force and Regional Planning are handling the issue well, said he would ask developers to contribute to a fund for affordable housing. Currently, the fund hasn’t been created. Holland said he will focus on the city core to create affordable housing and discourage high-end development in lieu of affordable alternatives. He said regional planning has mutated, creating confusion when opening up federal lands for development.

“I don’t know how much land you’ve got to have open,” Cashell said, defending growth at 3 percent with developers paying for sewer, water and education. He says citizens aren’t paying for water as growth continues, but water conservation, meters and Vidler Water Company are all necessary to manage water resources. Within a decade, the community will need to import water at a $1 billion taxpayer expense, according to Holland, as he quotes TMWA sources. He plans on preserving beauty, especially in the north valleys, by marketing our “sagebrush, starry skies and antelope.” Reinstating the original master plan to direct growth toward the core is part of his vision for Reno.

Growth has created problems as traffic endangers pedestrians. Cashell said that adding speed bumps in some areas, like Skyline Boulevard, would slow emergency vehicles; and new developments are putting in crosswalks. Holland supported more crosswalks for residents, especially in problem areas where he claims the city has liability concerns to address.

Holland says he’s running for mayor because city government has gotten too cozy with powerful people. He cites Winnemucca Ranch Development as an example of regional planning delays and appealed decisions on behalf of developers. Cashell, a former owner of several casinos, scoffs at the notion of “being in the hip pocket” of powerful people. “I don’t know any developer who could afford me,” he said.

Ward 4 council candidates Dwight Dortch and Scott Kelley had heated discourse over the question of city government getting too cozy with powerful people.

“People see it,” challenger Kelley said, advocating public workshops to alter public perception. He cites campaign finance reports indicating developers gave incumbent Dortch $140,000 to show that his opponent represents developers’ interests rather than the interests of the people, and, he claimed, Dortch votes for all pro-growth measures. A red-faced Dortch said that Kelley asked the same people for money, but he didn’t dispute the amounts received from developers or his voting record. Dortch challenges the cozy-alliance perception with his record of increasing Neighborhood Advisory Board and public meetings.

Kelley, a real estate photographer, provided verbal snapshots of why regional planning is “backwards” in providing needs like pedestrian crosswalks. He claims such needs are not required by new development, which burdens taxpayers with the expense of adding them later. Pedestrian crossings are important, agrees Dortch, but the problem is people driving too fast. He said putting more police officers in problem areas would mean that the tickets they write would likely pay for their salaries.

Dortch asked Kelley which project would he have voted on differently. Kelley cited the Butler Ranch development because it was built on a flood plane that should’ve been retained as an overflow basin to provide flood protection. Dortch responded that the Butler Ranch project was beneficial to all, and developers paid for flood infrastructure. He stated that 65 percent of Reno residents agree that we are moving in the right direction by creating a “vibrant downtown and safe neighborhoods.”

Kelley said regional planning needs stricter assessment of development impact. Stead area roads are a case in point where people are upset as building continues without addressing infrastructure impact, he said. According to Kelley, his opponent’s “hands are tied by money.”

In the Ward 2 council race, incumbent Sharon Zadra and challenger Vivian Freeman disputed over partisan politics, the influence of powerful people, and even about physically facing each other at the debate table.

Freeman, who was a state legislator for nine terms, pointed out that Zadra kept her back turned to Freeman during much of the debate, using that fact to make a point about openness toward the public. She also claimed that city government caters to powerful entities and vowed to keep an open door for folks, even folks she doesn’t like, to state their message.

“I don’t endorse this criticism,” Zadra said, referring to the criticism of city government being too close to business. She cited her record of encouraging public outreach, inviting public citizens to participate and adding six dozen code enforcement officers to counter the criticism.

Zadra vowed to work toward smart, responsible planning and improving public services by decentralizing police for better representation and consolidating services.

Freeman said recent planning efforts have fallen short.

“Current taxpayers are paying for growth but growth needs to pay for itself,” she said. She believes that the regional plan is “broken” because water, air and environment issues are not addressed prior to breaking ground.

Zadra supports growth that has Growth Task Force recommendations. Freeman said she’s not anti-growth but is concerned about impact on infrastructure, such as pedestrian crosswalks. Ward 2 candidates focused on zip codes while debating pedestrian crossing concerns. Zadra cited improved crosswalks at the Senior Hyatt Complex to demonstrate positive changes. Freeman focused on lower income seniors living on South Virginia, Oddie Boulevard and Northwest Reno who “don’t get attention before people are killed.”

Cashell and Holland seemed to be most at ease during the debate. They joked with each other, and Cashell was comfortable enough that at one point he gave up 30 seconds of his response time. When it came time for the competitors to question each other, Cashell asked Holland, “When’s your birthday?” Holland laughed and replied, “It’s November 8th"—the day after the election.

By contrast, the City Council opposing candidates were more formal and serious and not terribly comfortable with each other.

Sierra Nevada Community Access Television is televising the one-hour rapid fire debate for locals who weren’t able to attend.