Public vote on Reno City Council election changes blocked

Earlier this year, Gov. Brian Sandoval invited Sen. Sheila Leslie to a ceremony where he signed her bill dealing with condemnation powers.

Earlier this year, Gov. Brian Sandoval invited Sen. Sheila Leslie to a ceremony where he signed her bill dealing with condemnation powers.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has vetoed a measure that would have allowed local voters to express a preference between district and at-large elections.

He made a point of saying he was not making a choice between those options.

“Rather, the bill contains what appears to be a technical error with regard to the change from electing a Reno councilman at large to electing a council member solely from a ward,” the governor wrote in his veto message. “Specifically, the person elected in 2012 will serve for a term of four years, yet—if the proposed ward election changes are approved by the voters at that same election—another person must be elected to the same seat in 2014. Under section 14 of the bill, the incumbent council member at large who holds office on July 1, 2013, will be deemed to represent only the new ward for the remainder of his or her term of office, which could result in double representation in that ward when a new person is elected in 2014. … On these grounds, the bill appears to be confusing and inoperable.”

But a legal review of the measure by other lawyers found that each of the governor’s concerns were addressed in the bill. “It’s a little confusing, but I followed the line of changes through the bill,” said one attorney who read the measure at the request of the News & Review. “You have to cross-check the references carefully. Like, section 14, which the governor mentions, plainly says the person elected in 2013 will represent only one ward, but in order to understand that you have to check it against the other provisions that it references.”

Senate Bill 304 was sponsored by Washoe Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Democrat. It provides for changes from citywide to ward elections in Carson City, Henderson, Reno and Sparks if voters approve the changes.

In Reno, which once had all at-large districts, that system has been watered down slowly over the years but never completely changed to full ward elections. Right now, candidates are nominated within a ward in the primary election and then must run citywide in the general election. In addition, one of the six council seats is solely at-large, an arrangement that does not exist in the other communities named in the bill. In other words, Reno has five ward seats and one at-large seat, and the new law would have changed that to six ward seats.

Because that anomaly exists only in Reno, Reno in effect took the other cities over the side with it when the governor vetoed. Now none of them can change their election wards.

Use of at-large districts has long been a target of community activists, who say citywide campaigns drive up the cost of election campaigns, keep working people from running and make it easy for the well-heeled or money-propped to win.

Some critics, such as Reno city legislative lobbyist Cadence Matijevich and Reno News & Review columnist Sean Cary, faulted the bill for interfering with local government, even though the bill provided for public votes. “The [Reno City] Council’s feeling is the makeup of our charter is a local issue,” Matijevich told a legislative hearing. However, the Nevada Constitution is not a strong home-rule document, and legislators have often stepped into local affairs, sometimes at the request of locals. In a 2010 court case, state court judge David Barker ruled that Nevada political subdivisions are “mere instrumentalities of the state,” a view similar to that expressed by legislators.

In the 1980s, for instance, local governments in the Truckee Meadows shut down regional planning, a development that dismayed nearly all players, including developers and unions. Finally in 1989, state lawmakers led by Senate Republican floor leader William Raggio forced Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County to re-establish a regional planning agency.

Leslie said she got involved with the issue because people came to her after they were rejected by Reno councilmembers. “They got a deaf ear—not even so much a deaf ear, but a very hostile reaction when they brought this issue up with individual [Reno City] Council people.”

Local vs. state

At a hearing during this year’s legislative session, community activist and unsuccessful mayor candidate Erik Holland focused attention on Reno Councilmember Dwight Dortch as the poster boy—or billboard boy—for big, expensive campaigns.

“Every four years, Dwight Dortch blooms,” Holland said. “The city blooms with Dwight Dortch billboards.”

Not surprisingly, that upset Dortch, who responded that in the first elections of current councilmembers, he and his colleagues ran on shoestrings just like their challengers.

“Everyone up here ran with no money, no different than anybody else who has run for a first time,” he said.

But campaign financial disclosures and news coverage of the time do not support Dortch’s version. On January 16, 2003, Susan Voyles reported in the Reno Gazette-Journal, “Councilman Dwight Dortch established a record for a council seat, raising $221,740 in his first campaign, topping the $190,062 reported by Councilman Pierre Hascheff in 2000. Councilwoman Sharon Zadra raised $159,000 in her first campaign.”

Another witness, Carson City resident Andrea Engleman, said, “I was concerned about the fact that we were not voting by ward and that people did not even know their representative because ‘the boys downtown,’ as they say in Carson City, were running the elections,” Engleman said. “We managed to get an advisory ballot question on the ballot in 1992 that literally tied, 8,504 to 8,504.”

Sen. Mo Denis elaborated, “The deciding factor for me [in North Las Vegas] was when an individual who could not raise enough money to do a citywide campaign focused on a neighborhood with higher voting percentages and not surrounding neighborhoods. It is difficult to get citizens who do not vote to vote if the candidates do not come to them.” He said a change to ward elections would “allow people to run who would not have been able to run in the past.”

Carson Mayor Robert Crowell, however, asked that the capital city be exempted from the proposed city votes. “Carson City is geographically compact,” he said. “There is a history in this community. If you want to represent our community, you walk and represent all of us. … My own personal view of the nature of Carson City is such that if you run and elect by ward, you detract from the ability and feeling we are a one-community group.” The Reno City Council initially opposed the measure, but later dropped its opposition. The council is now still free to put the measure on the ballot itself, and Leslie hopes the council will move quickly because there is not an affected incumbent to make the issue seem personal.

Matijevich and, later, Councilmember David Aiazzi argued that the public is not calling for ward elections. They’re probably not calling for at-large elections, either—few regular voters likely have the matter on their radar screens—but Leslie said because the Reno City Council has a reputation for not being very approachable by anyone outside City Hall, it might not know about some concerns in the community.

Not everyone accepted the governor’s claim that the language and not the issue of ward/at-large elections motivated him, claiming that Sandoval has a way of finding obscure reasons to support policies supported by Republican figures or campaign contributors.

“When he vetoed the redistricting bill, he cited the Voting Rights Act, which gave him some political cover, but that’s not his territory.” said one lobbyist. “Even if you say his reasoning in the veto was correct, and I don’t think it was, the Voting Rights Act has nothing to do with him. It’s enforced by the [U.S.] Justice Department and the courts.”

The governor’s veto was demoralizing to some legislative bill drafters, who were unaccustomed to having their division’s work negatively portrayed.