Supreme Court says Reno council members can’t run for mayor

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In a 5-2 vote, the Nevada Supreme Court on Thursday ordered Washoe County to bar Reno City Council members Jessica Sferrazza and Dwight Dortch from running for mayor.

The ruling was prompted by a petition filed by Eddie Lorton, a Reno businessman who argued the state Constitution’s term-limits provision bars both from moving from one position on the council to become the mayor, who also sits on the council.

“Because the Reno City Charter makes the mayor a member of the city’s ‘local governing board’ for all purposes, we conclude that Article 15, Section 3(2) bars a term-limited council member from thereafter being elected mayor of Reno,” says the opinion written by Justice Jim Hardesty.

That section of the Constitution limits elected officials to 12 years in an office on a “local elected body.”

The key elements mentioned in the opinion, which was issued just two weeks before candidate filing opens, include that the mayor of Reno has a vote on the seven-member council and that his administrative duties as mayor are limited by the fact Reno has a city manager, who handles most administrative duties of running the city.

Carson City Mayor Robert Crowell said his “off-the-cuff analysis” of the 19-page opinion is that it would apply to the Board of Supervisors as well.

When it comes to the structure and the mayor’s job description, he said, “there’s not a whole lot of difference between the Reno City Charter and the Carson City Charter.”

The Board of Supervisors is a five-member panel headed by the mayor, who has a vote, like the Reno mayor.

By contrast, the opinion points to Sparks, where the mayor sits on the council but doesn’t have a vote and has extensive administrative responsibilities for running the city.

“It would seem to me it would apply to Carson City,” said Crowell, who is a lawyer.

The court ruling also indicated that it would help define the meaning of that constitutional provision “so that future potential candidates and challengers will be able to understand the provision’s effect and the district courts will be able to apply an established interpretation of the provision.”

Hardesty wrote that in addition to Reno, councils in the cities of Henderson, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas are similarly constructed.

Lorton’s lawyers argued that because Sferrazza and Dortch will have served their full 12 years as council members, they are term-limited from moving to another post on the same body.

Sferrazza and Dortch argued that the job of council member is defined differently from that of mayor in the Reno charter, that they “serve in different capacities” with different duties and powers. Therefore, they argued, the mayor’s office is not the same as council member even though he, like the rest of the body, has one vote on any given issue.

Hardesty and the majority of the court disagreed, saying their reading of the Constitution indicates that drafters intended to prevent politicians from serving more than 12 years on any given “local governing body.”

Justices Nancy Saitta and Ron Parraguirre felt differently, arguing that the majority conclusion that the mayor is “essentially just a seventh city council member with a few minor additional responsibilities thrown in” gives “short shrift” to the mayor’s role in Reno.

“The Reno City Charter explains that the Reno city council is made up of two separate elective offices: the mayor and city council member,” they wrote.

The mayor, they argued, is different from the council members, and his or her duties are included in a different article of the charter.

“As a result, a person who has served for 12 years as a city council member has not served in the office of mayor and, thus, is not precluded ... from holding that office.”

But the majority of Hardesty, Mark Gibbons, Michael Douglas and Michael Cherry along with Kris Pickering issued a writ of mandamus directing Washoe County election officials “to exclude Sferrazza and Dortch from the ballot materials for the 2014 Reno mayoral election.”


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