City Hall fights back using taxpayers’ money
May 3, 2002
They say you can’t fight City Hall. They don’t always say why, though.
One of the main reasons is City Hall gets to use your tax money to fight back, hire attorneys with your money in order to fight back, marshal the resources of a staff of hundreds — paid with your money — to fight back, call in political debts from other people, most of whom probably also are being paid with your money, to help them fight back.
And then if City Hall still doesn’t win, it takes you to court. Where taxpayers pick up the tab.
If it sounds like I’m talking about the Carson City supervisors, you can be forgiven. The war of words over Fuji Park and the fairgrounds has followed the script to the letter. But it’s not the only one.
The script has been written and rewritten so many times, government officials have it memorized. And they seldom lose. How can they, if they choose to fight back? The deck is stacked.
Seldom, though, do two controversial issues follow such a parallel track as the Fuji/fairgrounds debate in Carson City and the train trench argument in Reno.
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As Nevada Appeal reporter Amanda Hammon wrote in Wednesday’s edition, both involve initiative petitions circulated by groups who were unable to persuade city leaders to change their minds.
So they followed Nevada law, got enough signatures to get their issue on the ballot — 11,000 in Reno, 3,400 in Carson City — and expected the process to take its course.
Well, it did.
In both cities, the hired guns came up with legal opinions saying what the disgruntled residents were trying to do would usurp the “administrative” functions of city government.
OK, I understand the legal argument. It says certain powers of city government need to be protected from the initiative process. It would get pretty messy if Joe Citizen could get up an initiative petition for every piece of business handled at City Hall.
The argument is malarkey. Not on its legal merits, but because politics happen in the real world.
If residents are unable to change administrative decisions of elected officials, then they are limited to policy decisions.
But rarely, if ever, do city councils make motions and vote on the kind of broad policy decisions that lead to specific controversies like Fuji Park/fairgrounds or the train trench.
I’m fairly certain residents will find nowhere in Carson City’s vast array of master plans and vision statements anything that says, “In times of potential fiscal crisis, the best approach would be to begin selling off city parks to private developers.”
Don’t remember that being voted on, do you? Don’t remember anybody running on that campaign platform either, huh?
In Reno, the city council makes a point of saying no final decision has been made on the train trench. What? A $231 million project is headed down the tracks — in fact, construction has to be started this year — and they say they haven’t made a decision?
Not true. The council has made a policy decision to proceed with a trench as the best way to resolve traffic and safety problems caused by trains running through downtown Reno. Whether this trench design or that is better, how to pay for it, who to hire — those are administrative decisions.
For petition circulators, the people who disagree strongly enough to spend their own time and money trying to get a public vote on the issue, the whole “policy vs. administrative decision” question is a Catch-22.
There’s nothing to debate until a specific proposal is floated. By that time, however, it has become a management process leading to an administrative decision.
It’s easy to see how slippery that slope can become, and how impossible it is to get a grasp on the exact moment in time when the policy was established.
Aside from those vagaries, though, the legal maneuvering simply tries to sidestep the obvious.
Is the city’s position that it’s illegal not to sell the Carson City fairgrounds? Of course not. Is Reno’s position that the council is legally bound to build a trench? Hardly.
The petition-circulators aren’t trying to take away elected officials’ ability to make an administrative decision. They’re simply trying to get public votes on controversial issues.
If the citizens’ proposals get voted down, then the elected officials proceed. If voters agree with the irate citizens, then the elected officials still have the power to act in line with the voters’ wishes.
What if the supervisors or city council persist in going against the voters’ decision? That’s the point, I say, the courts need to get involved.
Legal challenges before the election miss the point. Who doesn’t understand a group in Reno wants a vote on the trench and a group in Carson wants a vote on the park and fairgrounds?
If petition groups get enough signatures, their question should get on the ballot.
If they win on the ballot, it’s up to government to figure out how to fulfill the desires of the voters.
Now, that’s an administrative function. It’s also the point at which City Hall stops fighting back.
Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.
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