Column: Local-politics version of 'Survivor' carries a dubious prize

As the only person in America who did not watch "Survivor," I think I win.

Send me the million bucks.

In the meantime, though, I've been watching the local edition of "Survivors," which is also known as primary election season.

Although there aren't a lot of local races, the candidates for Carson City mayor and supervisor have been waging their own battles to be the last man standing on the desert island known as the capital city.

We, the residents, get to vote them off the island.

Well, not exactly.

The losers get to stay, and they get a lot fewer headaches than the winner. And there's no million-dollar prize, just a paltry salary that works out to be about 39 cents an hour after you figure in all the meetings and ribbon-cuttings and phone calls wanting to know why there's a roundabout at Fifth and Edmonds.

The survivors of the Sept. 5 primary get to face off in November - unless one of them scores a knockout. Any candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary is declared the winner, and gets to make the rounds of the talk shows.

On "Survivor," that means Dave Letterman. In Carson City, that means Dave Morgan.

If there's not a decisive winner on Sept. 5, then the top two finishers square off Nov. 7.

Over the last couple of weeks, members of the Nevada Appeal readers panel, along with Jeff Ackerman and me, got to sit down with each of the four mayoral candidates and three supervisor candidates.

The candidates were all prepared and well-spoken. They've been doing this kind of thing at least a couple of times a week recently, as they speak to the Rotary and the Republicans and the senior citizens and virtually anybody else who feels obligated to actually listen to candidates before casting a ballot.

Often, local elections are popularity polls. You either know the candidate, or your brother-in-law used to work for him, or your kids are both in the same soccer league, you're both in Kiwanis, or there's some other personal connection that lets you know whether he's a good guy or not.

But most people feel obligated to at least listen to what the other candidates have to say. And there have been lots of opportunities to do that.

That means being able to decide the best candidate based on issues.

Ray Masayko, who's been in the mayor's chair for four years, and Tom Tatro, who was a supervisor for nine years, have plenty of issues. They're more or less responsible for Carson City being the way it is now, so you can judge them on their votes and their positions.

Tatro, because he's the challenger, has to poke holes in Masayko's job performance. But he has to do it carefully, because he could get stuck too.

For example, Tatro's ad on taxes and Masayko's response.

Tatro took a shot at Masayko for saying the tax rate on Carson City hasn't gone up. As Tatro pointed out, the city's operating tax rate has, indeed, gone up. But the total tax rate hasn't risen, because the school district has been lowering its tax rate.

School board members keep pointing this out every year. "Taxes would be going down," they say, "except that every time we lower the rate, the supervisors come along and raise it back up. It's not our fault."

And Carson City voters keep tossing school board members out of office. Go figure.

In other places, elected officials who keep raising the taxes every year might get booted out of office. Not in Carson City, though. It's become an accepted way of doing business - as long as there's room, and the total property tax rate doesn't rise - then nobody gets excited that the city keeps gobbling up a bigger share.

There's actually a pretty good reason for this. Carson City plans for the revenue, puts it to use in providing services to the residents, and as long as times are flush, people are happy to have those services. The pencil-pushers at City Hall point out that without that revenue - about 5 percent more a year - we'd most likely be seeing cutbacks in services.

So Tatro can't exactly blast Masayko for raising taxes. Nor is he saying he won't raise taxes. He's saying Masayko shouldn't take credit for not raising taxes. OK. Kind of a fine distinction there that didn't really come across in the attack-style advertisement.

It would be so much easier if, like on "Survivor," we could just see which one was willing to eat a rat.

On the outside looking in are Neil Weaver and Tom Keeton.

Weaver has some strong ideas, such as a performance audit for city departments and a city attorney who actually works for the supervisors instead of the District Attorney's Office.

His best line during our discussion: "I don't want to rebuild the house. I just want to rearrange the kitchen to make it work efficiently."

For Keeton, it's a matter of overcoming the perception that it takes a 20-year resident to figure out what makes Carson City tick. Of course, it only takes about a 20-minute resident to figure out that nobody has done much to solve traffic problems for the last 20 years.

Of course, in the local-politics version of "Survivor," the real test isn't the campaign, which is the fun part. The prize for the winner is four years of hard work.

Good luck, I think.

Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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