A mayor may be part of the City Council, but he or she is so much more.
That’s the basic contention of Las Vegas attorney Bradley Schrager, who’s fighting to allow a longtime former Reno city councilwoman to run for mayor next year. A would-be competitor has filed an emergency motion with the state Supreme Court, contending that ex-Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza — who served 12 years on the Reno council before being forced out by term limits in 2012 — is now barred from running for mayor.
The case has implications for Southern Nevada, too: Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen has served more than 12 years on that city’s council, first as a councilman and now as mayor. If term limits mean a person can only serve for 12 years — total — on a “local governing body,” as would-be Reno mayoral candidate George “Eddie” Lorton contends, Hafen may be forced to step down, or at least be prevented from seeking re-election.
But Schrager compellingly argues a relatively simple point: The office of city council member is not the same thing as the office of mayor in Reno. As a result, a person can serve for the maximum 12 years on the City Council, and then run for mayor and serve another 12.
The controversy stems from a voter-approved term limit, approved for the final time in 1996, which is now part of the state constitution at Article 15, Section 4(2), which says, “No person may be elected to any state office 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 ...”
Lorton contends the mayor is manifestly part of the City Council, so time spent serving as council member counts against the time a person can serve as mayor. Since Sferrazza has served 12 years, she can’t serve “additional terms” as mayor. But Schrager argues the real question in this case is this: Is a city councilman the same thing as a mayor? “The mayoralty of Reno is not a ‘different City Council seat,’ it is a wholly separate office and therefore a councilperson who is elected by the citizens of the city as their mayor is not serving ‘additional terms’ on the council,” Schrager answers.
In support, Schrager cites a very compelling piece of history: Under the 1971 city charter, voters in Reno elected seven City Council members, who then would select one of their number to hold the title of mayor. “At that time, the mayor of Reno actually was a councilperson, ran as a candidate for council and was elected as a councilperson,” Schrager writes.
But in 1977, the state Legislature amended the city’s charter, creating a separate office of mayor, a position independently elected by Reno voters. That job is imbued with a host of special powers and duties that are distinct from regular council members, including the ability to deputize additional police officers in the event of an emergency, call special meetings of the City Council, determine the order of business at meetings, declare emergencies, and make appointments to various boards and commissions (some with council approval).
In other words, the answer to the correct question in this case — does council member equal mayor — is manifestly no.
There are some who argue politicians simply hate term limits and will employ all manner of legal trickery to get around them. But the fact is, Sferrazza isn’t trying to get around anything. If voters had intended to limit local government elected officials to 12 years total on a local government body, they could easily have written the term limits law that way. But they didn’t.
Moreover, it’s undeniable Lorton stands to benefit if the Nevada Supreme Court can be induced to keep better-known, more experienced politicians off the ballot. As Schrager says, “Petitioner [Lorton] should be informed that if he wants to become Reno’s next mayor, he will have to do it the old-fashioned way: Convince his fellow citizens he is best suited to perform the duties and responsibilities of the office.”
By suing to cull out would-be opponents, he’s not off to a great start.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.