Should officials go ahead with projects rejected by residents?
It slowly crawls across the valley, a ribbon of steel and concrete that will connect Sparks with the south end of the Truckee Meadows, cutting a few minutes off the travel time to get between those two points.
It’s now called the Southeast Connector. It started out as the Tahoe Pyramid link.
It’s the latest in a series of huge projects that encountered public hostility and so were abandoned—after which officialdom or moneyed interests quietly revived them, changed their names, and made them happen in spite of public sentiment.
• The courthouse annex. In 2000, a courthouse expansion was rejected by voters, but was built anyway after being redesigned and reduced in cost.
• The train trench. Railroad tracks through downtown Reno were lowered at the behest of downtown casinos after the public twice voted against the project.
• The Honey Lake water importation project. Fierce grass roots opposition to transferring water from northern California to the Truckee Meadows to fuel growth became a major campaign issue and killed the project in the 1990s. It was brought back to life under the name of Fish Springs Ranch Water Project, though it was downscaled.
• The Tahoe Pyramid link. The six lane freeway inspired opposition and faded from view in the 1990s, only to come back as the Southwest Connector, now under construction.
“Public officials are looking a decade ahead and the typical voter is looking at next Tuesday,” said political scientist Fred Lokken.
But that’s true of most public policy issues, and city councils and county commissions must figure out for themselves how the public feels. On many votes, from sewer plants to bond issues, they tend to see the views of the affluent residents in their social and business circles as typical, which they may or may not be.
But in a few rare cases, governing boards must contend with clear expressions of public sentiment—public votes or highly organized movements. In Washoe County, it takes a lot to get grass roots residents aroused. Voter turnout is normally low, so when grass roots opposition to projects gets organized, it is usually considered politically potent.
Some residents consider it an ethical issue when elected officials deliberately ignore clear expressions of public sentiment like the two votes against the railroad trench. But Kathleen Clark, an ethics scholar at Missouri’s Washington University School of Law, said that may not be the case.
“I don’t know that I would call it an ethics problem but rather of political responsiveness,” she said.
For that, she indicated, the remedy is the ballot box. She pointed to the mayoral candidacy of New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn as an example. Quinn began the 2013 race for mayor as the frontrunner and ended up losing the Democratic primary election after her role in overriding voter-approved term limits—and thus allowing Michael Bloomberg to serve an additional term—became well known to voters.
When officials defy clearly expressed public sentiment, she said, it suggests they “have not been responsive to the community” and makes them vulnerable to voter retaliation.
One of the few enduring victories by organized grass roots in this valley was the 1992 win by Plumas Street residents against a city plan to widen that street between Plumb and California into a major artery through a residential neighborhood. Die-hard supporters were damaged politically. Some did not even seek reelection.
In Washoe County, voter judgment like that needs to be expressed quickly. Politicians and their consultants know that population turnover here is so rapid that by the time an elected official comes up for reelection, many offended voters have moved away.
In one instance, the 1998 election, railroad trench supporters Mike Mouliot and Sue Camp were defeated by trench opponents Ted Short and Pete Sferrazza in races dominated by the trench issue. Together with the public vote against the trench, public sentiment seemed clear. Yet a few days after their election defeats, lame ducks Camp and Mouliot cast votes to guarantee the trench would go forward. There was no voter retaliation to be inflicted because the two had already been rejected by voters.
“The form of government that we have, we elect people to make those hard decisions,” said Progressive Leadership of Nevada director Bob Fulkerson. “But it seems like in all those cases of public expression, officials should express the will of their constituents.”
Lokken does not have high regard for “the notion of turning it over to the voters.”
“I don’t take any of the citizen votes seriously in the Truckee Meadows because they have 20 percent or so of voters turning out.” With turnout that low, it is not a fair test of public sentiment, he said.
“We have a very large portion of poor voters who are politically disconnected and just don’t vote. … It’s not the voice of the people. It’s the voice of a selected few,” he said. The typical Washoe voter, he said, is “white, male, older with a certain income.” As a result, those voters often seem to be “the only people who matter in the Truckee Meadows.”
What officials must do, he said, is “decide what the prolonged benefit to the community should be” and vote accordingly. He acknowledges that those infrequent occasions when the public has expressed itself are more difficult for elected officeholders, but they still have an obligation to show leadership. Indeed, he said one of the problems of modern politics is that too many elected officials are too timid and unwilling to face down public opposition on some things.
Complicating these ideals is the presence in Nevada of powerful lobby groups like builders and casinos.
“You do have the risk of bought-and-paid-for politicians who do what the developers want instead of the public,” he said. “It’s not the issue of leadership; it’s the prostitution of governance now.”
Nevertheless, Lokken said, elected officials need to keep their eyes on the long term and act in the public’s interest, even when there is clear public expression to the contrary and even when the public may not appreciate it.
“They’re not going to thank you, but it will improve their quality of life,” he said.
Fulkerson agreed that residents may not have detailed knowledge of every item that comes before local governments, but that doesn’t mean they are uninformed when issues like Honey Lake come up and the public gets deeply involved—and those issues should not be treated like run of the mill votes by officials. While local officials cannot follow or even know public sentiment on every matter that comes before them, he believes, when they fail to respond to those occasional issues that arouse the public, they are furthering public distrust.
“I think that’s one of the things that sours people on government in general, makes them cynical towards government and turns them off of politics,” he said.