Love or hate her, Pat Mulroy will be missed.
The retiring general manager of both the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority has been a controversial figure in the modern history of Las Vegas. That has something to do with the fact that this city would not exist without water, and could not have grown to what it is today without it. And where there is water, there is Mulroy.
A protege of the legendary Richard Bunker, Mulroy knows the political game better than perhaps any other local government manager. She’s been an integral part of the city’s expansion over the past two decades, an enabler of the massive development that would have stunned the city’s original founders. But in that role, she engendered more than her share of criticism. (Full disclosure: My wife works for a public relations firm that has a contract to represent the water authority.)
There are those — such as my friend and colleague George Knapp, the senior investigative reporter at 8NewsNow — who blame Mulroy for her role in the city’s chaotic growth. If only the water authority said no, or did something to slow the rate of growth, the valley would not have sprawled from Red Rock Canyon to Frenchman’s Mountain, from Kyle Canyon Road to Henderson. I’ve always thought that was somewhat unfair: Mulroy’s job was to keep the water flowing, and if she’d failed or refused on philosophical grounds, she’d most likely have been replaced by somebody who would.
Besides, it was not Mulroy who decided the valley should grow. It was developers, and convention marketers, and advertising agencies, and casino executives, and construction companies, and hundreds of thousands of people who came to town to find work, play or make their fortune. It’s doubtful anyone could have stopped them, even somebody with Mulroy’s outsized influence.
Another criticism of Mulroy could be leveled at anyone who lived through the Great Recession in Las Vegas: She never saw it coming. Spending on infrastructure that counted on an ever-expanding economy never considered the possibility the entire Ponzi scheme would come crashing down around us. Yes, there were some voices in the wilderness, who with the passage of time look ever more prescient. But nearly all of the city’s business, government and community leaders shared the view that Las Vegas would never stop.
Things changed in the wake of the Great Recession: Mulroy faced the first significant opposition to a water rate increase ever. Former allies in the business community turned adversaries overnight, as water rates increased to pay for infrastructure we already purchased, including the “third straw” project currently tunneling underneath Lake Mead. (Mulroy managed to get the increase approved by her board of local elected officials anyway, a testament to her political savvy.) She had to fight off an unprecedented attempt at the 2013 Legislature by state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, to place the water authority under the Public Utilities Commission. (That hearkened, ironically, to the only major battle Mulroy ever lost: A 2002 push to create a municipal power agency with a water authority takeover of what was then Nevada Power. While voters gave an advisory question the thumbs up — 57 percent to 43 percent — the idea went nowhere.)
There’s little doubt we’re in a new era, one where institutions of all stripes inspire less trust and confidence than they have in the past. Post-recession, people are more apt to question projects such as the water authority’s backup plan to build a pipeline to rural Nevada to pump water to Las Vegas, even if they’re popular with the insiders who still make up the city’s ruling elite. And let there be no doubt — whatever else she is — Mulroy must be counted in that small group. Her impact on the city and its modern history is undeniable.
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.