NAACP chapter president Lonnie Feemster, left, is a critic of the city’s election system.
NAACP chapter president Lonnie Feemster, left, is a critic of the city’s election system.

The Reno City Council reviewed proposed changes to the citywide voting process last week, opening discussion on a ballot initiative that would put a ward-only elections process to a referendum this fall.

Currently, in five of the City Council seats, candidates run ward-only in the primary but then must run city-wide in the general election. And candidates for one City Council seat must run citywide in both primary and general election. The proposed ballot language would allow voters to reconsider that process in favor of a ward vote in both the primary and general election races for all six seats, eliminating the single at-large seat.

Last week, after weeks in a city-commissioned review process, the Reno Charter Review Committee issued a report unanimously recommending the ward-voting proposal. “I’m prepared to move forward. I mean, this is why we set up a committee, for their recommendations,” Ward 3 Council member Jessica Sferraza told the Mayor during last Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s time to put it on the ballot.”

Council member Pierre Hascheff, who currently holds the at-large seat, disagreed. He said the question needed to be revised before making its way to the ballot. “To me the language doesn’t really tell the whole story,” Hascheff said. “When you read the question, it talks about changing the current method, but it doesn’t tell you what that means. I don’t think most people would know that right now.”

On the other hand, he said, “I’m not so sure that people read these explanations.”

Hascheff was referring to five explanatory paragraphs that would appear alongside the ballot question. Despite his objection, the Council did not completely reject the proposed language, which reads:

“Shall the current method to elect the five ward City Council Members in the general election be changed to where each Council Member representing a ward must be elected by only the registered voters of the ward that he or she seeks to represent?”

In the 20 years since the last time the issue appeared on the ballot, citywide elections have become something of a hobbyhorse in Reno politics. Ward election supporters have watched a handful of proposals come and go without changing the citywide general elections, which they say are prohibitively costly to all but the wealthiest and most established candidates.

In 2011, Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Washoe County Democrat, won approval of legislation that would have let Reno residents vote on ward elections. Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it in July.

But Reno’s citywide elections could face more than just political threats. Earlier this year, City Attorney John Kadlic warned the Council that shifting demographics might eventually make the system legally vulnerable to federal civil rights statutes.

“I think you need to put the question on the ballot, because realistically, at some point, I think we’re going to have to go to ward-only elections,” Kadlic said.

He said the city’s current redistricting and elections process is “probably” in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, but he added that the Department of Justice has a history of pursuing cases in cities with at-large systems.

“Ward 3 is a perfect example,” Kadlic explained. “It has 56.5 percent minority population. You could end up with a situation where a minority candidate wins in the primary, but loses in the general election—someone who wins in the ward but loses citywide. That may cause the Department of Justice to look at the situation and say, ‘OK maybe the system you have in place isn’t fair.’ ”

Lonnie Feemster, head of the Reno-Sparks NAACP, is critical of the citywide process. He said the current redistricting map “violates the concepts of the Voting Rights Act” by splitting ethnic minority communities.

“I’d like to see it make the ballot,” Feemster said of the current proposal, “The NAACP is concerned because the current system creates a number of inequities for candidates of color and for the disadvantaged communities who support candidates of color.”

The Washoe County Registrar has a July 15 deadline for adding items to the November ballot, so the city will have to move quickly if it wants to address concerns expressed by Feemster, Kadlic and others.

The Council hopes to put the issue to a vote when it meets again later this month.

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