Jim Clark: ‘Judge tosses suit threatening WC-1’ (opinion)
“JUDGE TOSSES SUIT THREATENING WC-1.” That was the front page headline in last Saturday’s Reno Gazette-Journal.
I spent the previous day in Department 9 of Washoe County District Court listening to Judge Freeman and the lawyers, and I am convinced the little guy doesn’t stand a chance against the down town Reno “good old boys” network.
Here’s the background. During the 2015 Nevada legislative session the late Senator Debbi Smith (D-Sparks) introduced bills which would: 1.) provide Washoe County School District (“WCSD”) with $315 million by extending the “school debt” portion of our property tax until 2025 even though the school bonds for which the tax was imposed were paid off, and 2.) create a public schools overcrowding and repair needs (“PSORN”) committee to choose from legislatively approved tax increase options to raise $781 million to build 15 new schools.
Committee members were chosen by WCSD from a cross section of business, government, unions and parents. Of course no committee member would vote for a tax that would impact his/her business so in the end they could only agree on a 7% increase in the county sales tax.
That recommendation was submitted last March to the Washoe Board of County Commissioners (“BCC”) for a vote of the people in the November 2016 election. The legislature devised this fiction because no one trusts the school board with money and the “independent” committee was supposed to show voters that the school board didn’t do it.
Once a measure is approved for submission to voters Nevada law mandates that certain procedures be followed to try to ensure fairness in the language appearing on the ballot. First the BCC has to approve three-person committees to submit arguments and rebuttals both for and against the proposal so voters will have some idea of the issues.
Under the statute the county clerk has to use “due diligence” in locating prospective committee members. The “pro” part was easy. She had all the PSORN members and four volunteered. The “Con” was tougher, but two people, Jeff Church Tracy Figler, had publicly opposed submission to voters because WCSD already got more money than it needed for repairs.
Accordingly Registrar of Voters Luanne Cutler informed Church and Tracy they would be the “con” committee and she chose the four PSORN committee members who volunteered for the “Pro” committee. However, she never submitted the names to the BCC for approval so the committees were never officially formed.
Nonetheless both committees wrote up their arguments and exchanged drafts. Each committee then wrote rebuttals to the other’s argument, Church and Figler were not in agreement as to the stronger area of rebuttal so both were submitted. Registrar Cutler refused to accept them.
Nevada law provides that if the BCC does not appoint committees, which is the case here, the county clerk confers with the district attorney and the two of them write the both “pro” and “con” arguments. That would have ensured fairness, but it didn’t happen.
As a result, our sample ballots show an argument “for,” one “against,” a rebuttal of the argument against and nothing else. Jeff Church saw this as a problem. Four “pro” writers, two “against” writers, no lawfully appointed committees, no oversight by the district attorney and no rebuttal of the “pro” argument — so he went to court.
The hearing was last Friday and lasted two hours. If you ever wanted to see a citizen ganged up on, this was the place. The district attorney defended the county, Reno’s highest priced law firm represented the PSORN Committee, and the audience was like a who’s who of good old boys.
In the end, Judge Freeman ruled: 1.) Church had no right to be in court, 2.) The judge had no right to hear the case, and 3.) The county “substantially complied” with the statute.
The complaint was also filed with the Secretary of State. Let’s see what she comes up with.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.