Three Washoe County commissioners, without consulting experts or hearing any public comment, approved a plan for a 20-ton concrete monument to be built on county-owned property between two of downtown Reno’s most historic buildings.
That proposal died this month after meeting opposition from the Reno Historical Resources Commission. But the way the plan was quickly and quietly approved at the county level raises questions about the lack of public involvement in land use decisions, particularly when they affect historic sites.
The project’s sponsors said they will return to the commission with a proposal for another site on county-owned land — preferably one that also has some historic significance. Critics said the county needs to include experts and the public in the approval process when such projects are considered.
Buildings on the National Historic Register
“As a native Renoite, I care deeply about our historic places, and I was shocked to hear after the fact that the Washoe County Commission approved a monument at our historic courthouse without public discussion,” said Amber Joiner, a former Nevada State assemblywoman. “That is a key location in the heart of our city, and there should be major public discussion about any proposals for it.”
Washoe County commissioners Marsha Berkbigler, Kitty Jung and Vaughn Hartung approved the original request by two Reno men to construct a “Charters of Freedom” monument on a patch of lawn between the Washoe County Courthouse and the former Riverside Hotel building. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Commissioners Bob Lucey and Jeanne Herman were absent at the time of the vote, but witnessed the sponsors’ presentation in 2018. The monument, anchored atop three feet of concrete, is touted as being designed to last “300 to 500 years.” The setting mimics the bomb-proof casings in which the original documents are displayed in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
County says it was ‘a very public’ project
Last week, Washoe County commissioners declined to comment on the project or answer questions about public participation in the process. Instead, a county public information officer provided a statement to the Reno News & Review:
“The county commission’s approval two years ago was to authorize staff to pursue funding and installation of the Charters of Freedom project. With public comment then, publicity in a news release and outreach from (Truckee Meadows Community College), we felt it was a very public project. For now, the project appears to have stalled before the City of Reno Historical Resources Commission. Washoe County proudly stands behind its core values of Integrity, Effective Communication and Quality Public Service, and if more opportunities for public comment on future projects are needed to ensure full transparency, we support that. Public participation is welcomed and valued.”
Public, experts were not consulted
However, the minutes of the Oct. 9, 2018 meeting, at which the project was approved, show that the two local sponsors of the project showed a “brief video” about the proposed monument and displayed a rendering of the installation. The commissioners received a pamphlet. The sponsors told the panel they were confident the $70,000 price tag (now estimated at closer to $90,000) for the monument would be covered by donations from the community.
The monument features 60-pound bronze sheets inscribed with the texts of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and a draft of the Bill of Rights encased in concrete settings. The Bill of Rights draft, proposed in 1789, lists 12 articles rather than just the 10 amendments eventually ratified in 1791. More than 30 such monuments have been constructed in counties around the country since 2014. One was dedicated in Carson City in 2018.
The displays were the brainchild of a businessman and politician from North Carolina, who touted the “educational” projects his recent unsuccessful campaign for Congress. A related story in the Reno News & Review offers a more detailed examination of the Charters of Freedom projects.
“The content of these monuments is extremely concerning from an educational perspective, because they are not accurate,” Joiner said. “They claim to be showing the Bill of Rights, but confusingly show the 1789 Joint Resolution with 12 amendments instead of 10. They are also not historically accurate replicas as they claim to be, since they change the font to a modern one. These faux replicas lose a lot of the historic context one would get by viewing the originals, but they claim to be exact replicas.”
Commissioners heard only from sponsors
Those facts apparently weren’t known to the commissioners at the time of their votes. They didn’t ask historians, educators or architects for advice. Instead, they relied on the promotional materials presented by the local sponsors, Chuck Slavin and Mike Widmer of Reno. The pair first approached then County Manager John Slaughter about the proposal. The minutes state that Slaughter “was excited to see (the project) happen.”
Prior to the panel’s approval, there was little discussion among the commissioners. The minutes state that Berkbigler said she enjoyed seeing the Declaration of Independence during a visit to Washington, D.C. Jung said she thought the display would have educational value and offered to help raise money for the effort. Hartung also is quoted as offering his assistance to the sponsors.
The minutes note that “there was no response to a call for public comment.” But there also was no specific effort to inform the public that such a plan was being considered. The “press release” mentioned in the county’s statement apparently refers to an announcement sent out after, not before, the commission approved the project. TMCC’s involvement also came after approval, when its architecture program hosted a design competition for landscaping the monument site.
And it’s unclear how the commission would determine, as noted in its statement, if “more opportunities for public comment on future projects are needed to ensure full transparency.”
Exhibit built to last ‘300 to 500 years’
“If we have learned anything from this year’s powerful discussions, debates, and actions regarding monuments, memorials, and statues erected in public space, it should be this: any structure of this kind being contemplated for permanent installation must be subject to a thorough, transparent, and inclusive process of information, discussion, and deliberation that allows all residents to ask questions and voice their opinions. It frankly defies belief that the county government would not understand this, after the year we’ve had.” – Alicia Barber, a professional historian from Reno.
Slavin said he and Widmer have raised or secured pledges for about 45% of the up to $90,000 needed to complete the project. He said they will look for another county-owned site, preferably one that’s historically significant. Then he and Widmer will go back to the county commissioners to request another approval.
“Even if they are not pursuing the courthouse location any more, I hope this monument is not approved for any other locations in our community without serious opportunity for public discussion and a forum for concerns to be raised,” Joiner said.
Others said such proposals involving public spaces and historic sites should routinely be subject to an inclusive process of public review. They said all facets of a project’s intent, content, origins, and design should be discussed.
City of Reno has a public process for sites
Alexis Hill, who is Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler’s opponent in the coming election, was Reno’s arts, culture and events manager before resigning in September to campaign for office. Hill’s job involved public art projects and their placement in the community.
“We put together really robust public comment processes for anything we did on city property,” she said. “I learned from that if you don’t get a community to buy in – if you don’t have multiple meetings, do surveys, involve the community – the project will not go well.” She said involving the community is essential for any proposal that impacts public space.
“We need to be very careful about what we do, what we honor on public property,” she said.
“We need to involve experts from the get-go. You also have to be very careful of anything that is offered for free because there can be ulterior motives. That’s why we had robust acquisition requirements. You bring in the architects, the businesses, the community; you do your due diligence.” — Alexis Hill, former City of Reno arts, culture and events manager.
She said Washoe County has an obligation to make sure the commissioners “do more than just put an item on an agenda.” She said the public should be notified of pending actions in English and in Spanish. Residents should be given time to understand and be able to comment on proposals. “We need to make sure that the community is involved in the decision-making process,” she said.
Berkbigler did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Sponsors prefer dealing with counties
North Carolina businessman and repeated Tea Party/GOP Congressional candidate Vance Patterson came up with the idea for the monuments . His nonprofit, Foundation Forward Inc., sponsors their installation across the country. Patterson promoted the settings in his recent political campaign, where he touted their educational value.
Patterson said Foundation Forward prefers to deal with county governments rather than those at the municipal or state levels.
“The best approach is to work with the county manager,” he said. “The county manager knows everybody and we’ve found that counties are the easiest to work with, much easier than municipalities or states.” That’s because “there’s only two layers of administration there, the county manager and the county commission.”
The community should be involved in the approval process for the monuments, Patterson said. He said the public needs to be part of the discussions about the projects and be willing to “take ownership” of the displays. “There should be public input,” Patterson said. “It should be an open forum.”