In 19 weeks, Reno voters will have a duty that does not often present itself. In a single election, they will elect a new majority of the Reno City Council. As a result of term limits taking hold, four of the seven seats on the Council will turn over.
The importance of this election is certainly apparent to power players in the valley. Developers in particular are believed to be pushing hard for a Council they find congenial. Some activists who were appalled by the sprawl allowed by the current council—particularly approval of a housing development 30 miles north that is detached from the city proper—are also hoping for a better deal from the next Council.
Growth and environmental degradation have been issues before the Council since 1978, when six casinos opened in the valley. People poured in looking for jobs, which were very available, but there was no place to live, and the sewer plant ran out of capacity about when available housing nearly vanished. People lived in cars or in tents at a highway rest stop. Traffic problems increased. Overnight a controlled growth movement was legitimized in a city that had always given developers a long leash.
Controlled growth advocates Barbara Bennett and Peter Sferrazza were elected mayors into the mid-1990s but control of the Council was a more expensive proposition and the controlled growth faction never quite managed a majority of the Council.
Reno attorney Bill Bilyeu has some experience with the dynamics involved in a sudden sweeping change in membership of a public body. In 1984, a Republican surge gave the GOP the only majority in the Nevada Assembly it had in 40 years.
Bilyeu said the result of the sudden new majority tended to show itself more in procedures than in policy. For instance, it had been, and still is, the practice to shut the public out of the legislative process by “suspending the rules” in the closing days of the legislative session. Bilyeu did it, too, but he waited longer than usual. “I didn’t suspend my rules over on the Assembly side until—what?—it was at least two weeks after the Senate has suspended theirs.”
He said turnovers also costs the public something, and pulls in people who aren’t necessarily suited to the job: “If you get a sudden influx of new people, anyway, because of term limits, there is not institutional memory and you really don’t know what kind of wild cards you’re drawing these days.”
Truckee Meadows College political scientist Fred Lokken agreed the changeover will cost the voters. He said the current council has not been appreciated for its ability to govern.
“The consequences can be very dramatic,” he said. “Frankly, it puts at risk what has been a very productive working culture, largely because of Mayor Cashell, but it has taken time.”
Cashell will likely continue as mayor for two years after November. His first years were very difficult because of infighting on the Council.
“The city is coming through this period of remarkable accomplishment, and of holding it together during hard times,” Lokken said. “It takes time to train new faces and unless they’ve served on a neighborhood board, it can take a year or more to get them familiar with the budget process and working routines.”
He said that “some candidates who are seen as more insider than others” would likely adapt more quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily help them win. Moreover, some newly elected officials have been known to arrive in office with fire in their eyes, determined to follow their own priorities.
“Often when someone does come on board with their own agenda, that can be even more destabilizing than the other factors,” Lokken said. “Getting something done isn’t always the first thing they think about. In Reno particularly we have dealt with very difficult elected officials, who forget that they were elected to be part of a team and pursue their own agenda.”
He said getting things together fast is especially important, because in two years the rest of the Council will also be term limited out.