Photo By DENNIS MYERS How Reno City Council members are elected could be influenced by a ballot measure in November—and how people vote on that measure could be influenced by its wording.

Shall Reno City Council members who represent wards be elected by the voters who live in those wards or by voters citywide?

That’s a simple way of explaining the decision facing voters in Reno on Nov. 6, but no one seems to want to make it that simple. Specifically, advocates of ward elections over citywide elections object to the way the city is presenting the issue to voters.

A ballot measure approved by the Reno City Council explains what would happen with a yes vote but not what would happen with a no vote. It deals solely with the existing system. As approved by the Council, it would appear on the ballot this way: “Shall the five City Council members representing wards continue to be voted upon by all registered voters of the City in the General Election?”

When asked why it does not explain the alternative of ward elections, Mayor Bob Cashell said that is done in the separate explanations of the ballot question, not in the ballot question itself. Those explanations read as follows: “A ‘Yes’ vote would preserve the existing rules allowing each voter to vote for all Council members in the General Election. A ‘No’ vote would change the rules and only allow each voter to vote for Council members in their respective wards in the General Election.”

That gives voters two sentences on citywide elections and one on ward elections—and the actual language of the ballot measure is regarded by ward election advocates as slanted. The part about “all registered voters,” they say, would lead voters to the conclusion that they would lose something by voting no. And “continue” suggests a status quo that would be disrupted.

It is as though the ward election advocates had proposed language that said, “Shall the council member who represents your ward continue to be elected by voters in other wards in the General Election?”

At one time, all Reno Council candidates had to run citywide, or “at large,” in both the primary and general elections. 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 elsewhere in the state. In other words, Reno has five ward seats and one at-large seat, all of them elected citywide.

Citywide elections are preferred by the business community because they are far more expensive and screen out less affluent candidates who are less likely to be oriented to business concerns. In addition, candidates chosen by ward voters in the primary who are not approved by the business sector can then be defeated by voters of other wards with a wise use of business money in the general election.

Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) director Bob Fulkerson said, “The current system of running city-wide in the general election helps ensure that candidates who raise the most money from casinos, developers and other special interests always win. That’s why ward voting scares the hell out of the good ole boys.”

“No one except this small group is agitating for changes,” Cashell said.

The current system is raising federal Voting Rights Act concerns because Reno’s Ward 3 now contains a majority of racial minorities. When that ward electorate nominates candidates in the primary, those candidates then face a majority-white citywide electorate in the general election, most of whom do not live in the ward. “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,’ ” City Attorney John Kadlic said in May.

A bill in the Nevada Legislature last year that would have switched Reno to ward elections in the general election was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

An alternative piece of verbiage drafted by a smaller committee appointed by the City Council 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?” The Council rejected that version.

The City Council adopted the ballot language on June 13. Not until Aug. 21 did the Progressive Leadership Alliance (PLAN) raise questions about the language, and Mayor Cashell said they should have acted in a more timely fashion.

In addition, two PLAN members serve on the city’s Charter Review Committee, which drafted the language the City Council adopted, and Cashell said they did not make any objections to the final language at the May 21 Charter Review meeting where the final language was recommended to the City Council, In fact, Cashell said, the PLAN members were not even present, according to the minutes.

Cashell: “Nobody has ever called me from PLAN or any other groups. No one showed up at the meeting to object.”

But the two PLAN members who serve on Charter Review, Theresa Navarro and Mario Delarosa, say they were present at the May 21 meeting, and they did object to the proposed language during the meeting. The minutes say Delarosa was absent for part of the meeting, which he flatly denies. He said he sat next to Cashell. The minutes do not describe Navarro as absent. The minutes also do not record any objections to the ballot language. Navarro said if that is the case, the minutes are not complete.

As for the supposed delay in PLAN publicly objecting to the ballot language, Navarro said after the language was adopted in June over her and Delarosa’s objections, the city revived the issue three weeks ago when the city clerk’s office informed her and other Charter Review members of new meetings on the issue.

“It came out of the blue,” she said. “We thought the issue was settled.”

When that additional process merely resulted in reconfirming the language, that was when PLAN spoke out. The group is considering calling a boycott of that ballot line or encouraging people to vote against it so the city cannot cite it as evidence of public sentiment.

The Reno Gazette-Journal’s Brian Duggan last week quoted political analyst Eric Herzik as saying the group would make a mistake in boycotting because “PLAN agitated to get this on the ballot.”

Fulkerson said that is not true. His organization prefers to work through the normal lawmaking process. He has previously been critical of over-use of California-style ballot measures where lawmaking is responsive. It was the City Council’s idea to put the ward measure on the ballot. All PLAN wanted, if the issue was going to be on the ballot, was fair language. “PLAN has never supported putting ward voting on the ballot,” Fulkerson wrote in an email message to a community activist.

With Cashell quoting the May 21 minutes, we tried to examine those minutes. It was discovered that although the city’s website has a place for those minutes to be posted for the public, along with the agendas, the minutes for the last 16 meetings are missing. A city spokesperson provided the May 21 set and said the missing minutes will be posted this week.

Incidentally, the ballot measure is non-binding. That is, the voters will not determine whether the City Council election system is changed. They will simply give an opinion.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...