Sunday, October 27, 2013

Nevada Supremes take on Reno cheater case

Typically, term limits win at the ballot box with 60-70 percent of the vote. The best refuge for self-interested scoundrels seeking to evade them has been the courts. The latest episode in this long-running story is unfolding in Nevada.

Weak 12-year term limits were inserted in the state constitution by voters in 1994 and 1996 (it takes two votes in Nevada) with 70 percent of the vote. The term limits apply to all local governing bodies in the state including the Reno City Council. But two 12-year veterans of the council, current incumbent Dwight Dortch and former councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza, are running for mayor anyway. Their argument is the mayor is not a member of the council.

Mayoral candidate George "Eddie" Lorton begs to differ. His copy of the Reno City Charter clearly states that the mayor is a member of the council:

"The mayor shall serve as a member of the city council and preside over its meetings." (Section 1.014, Reno City Charter)

And his copy of the state constitution says, "No person may be elected to any state or local governing body who has served in that office, or at the expiration of his current term if he is so serving will have served, 12 years or more." (Nevada Constitution, Article 15, Section 3)

That's pretty explicit. How can one get around that?

Not by tackling it honestly. Instead, the term limit cheats in this case are simply ignoring it and charging ahead with their mayoral campaigns and, when challenged, are using a schoolyard defense: Other politicians are doing it!

It is true. In Henderson during the term limit era, Mayor Andy Hafen served 12 years on the Henderson City Council and then ran for mayor in 2009. He is still there.

Defenders of the cheaters also point to a 2008 opinion in their favor by the state attorney general who claimed the mayor's position could be construed as separate from the council and hence years as a council member do not count against a mayoral term limit. The trouble with that opinion is that Lorton has a newer, contrary one from the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the legal team for the state legislature. Most importantly, the 2008 opinion predates the very explicit language quoted above that states the mayor is indeed a member of the council.

In a petition to the Supreme Court he filed earlier this month, Lorton also points out the logical absurdity of the cheaters position. The official description of the amendment passed by voters states the reasons for the term limits are to "stop career politicians since no one will be able to hold office for several terms ... local governing body members would have the opportunity to focus on the issues instead of reelection." Does a term limit with such a goal really permit someone to serve on the council for six terms and 24 years?

Chief Justice Kris Pickering announced that the issues raised by Lorton have "arguable merit." You bet they do. He ordered an answer within 30 days from the two term limit cheaters, the city clerk and the voter registrar. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The politicians' far-fetched claim that the mayor wasn't a member of the council was shot down by the Nevada Supreme Court on Feb. 21. The citizens won this one. While voters had approved 12-year term limits, these politicians were trying to stretch them to 24. Thanks to Eddie Lorton and others who took the initiative to put a stop to this.