Former Assemblyman Morse Arberry's pursuit of a six-figure lobbying contract was in danger of derailing Friday as three Clark County commissioners said they won't approve of his hiring.
That's one vote shy of the majority needed to rebuff his plans to lobby on behalf of the district and justice courts.
Arberry, 57, is scheduled to make a pitch to commissioners Tuesday for a contract paying $124,000 over two years. The money would come from an administrative fund fed by fines collected in court cases involving juveniles, misdemeanors and traffic citations.
While the courts have had their own lobbyist in the past, some commissioners were concerned about Arberry's personal financial history and the fact he would fight the county's effort to limit the number of judges to save money.
Commissioners Steve Sisolak, Rory Reid and Chris Giunchigliani said they oppose the contract. Only Commissioner Tom Collins expressed whole-hearted support for Arberry, a Democrat who resigned his legislative seat this week to become a lobbyist.
The remaining three commissioners -- Lawrence Weekly, Larry Brown and Susan Brager -- haven't said what they plan to do, and did not return calls seeking comment.
Critics had said Arberry was unsuitable to represent the courts because of his long-standing failure to pay his property taxes, but that issue melted away late Friday when an unidentified person appeared at the County Treasurer's office and paid his $3,100 tax debt.
Sisolak wasn't impressed. Arberry, he said, paid the delinquent taxes only in response to the bad publicity.
"He is not an appropriate choice, for judges especially," Sisolak said.
The hiring of professional lobbyists to represent public entities has been a matter of debate among county officials in recent months, and Sisolak said he doesn't believe local governments should do so in the current economic climate. At the request of the commission, the county manager's office last month surveyed Clark County's local governments and produced a report showing a cumulative expenditure of about $1 million per year for contract lobbyists. Some of those fees, paid by regional governments, are also subject to commission review. The report did not cover the cost of paying regular employees who also do some lobbying.
Concern over the cost of lobbyists is just one factor in the debate over Arberry's deal.
Commissioner Rory Reid, who's running for governor, said he has nothing against Arberry but will vote against the proposed contract because he thinks state elected leaders should wait two years after leaving office to become lobbyists.
"For me, it's the appearance of impropriety," said Reid, who has incorporated the cooling off period in his gubernatorial campaign platform.
Collins said Arberry's quarter-century of legislative experience will make him a good lobbyist.
A cooling-off period has zero impact on a person's ability and character, Collins said. He also argued that Arberry's personal finances are irrelevant.
"I don't care what he does off the job," Collins said. "It's none of my business how he spends his money."
Collins contends that not only do local governments need lobbyists, they need the most powerful ones available. If the county had better lobbyists in 2009, it might have avoided losing $180 million to the state, he said.
"I think the county should have a whole stable of lobbyists to go up there to protect ourselves," Collins said. "When you go to the game, you take the best players."
But Sisolak notes that Arberry has no lobbying experience, and that the courts might have done well to put the job up for bid in the hope of landing a more seasoned representative for a smaller fee.
District Court Judge Susan Johnson has also protested Arberry's selection. In a strongly worded letter Friday to Judge Arthur Ritchie, she said she and other judges weren't informed of the choice or given a chance to vet candidates.
"The person the judiciary retains as its lobbyist and representative should be of the highest integrity," Johnson wrote. "From what I understand, Mr. Arberry has demonstrated an inability to pay his taxes and meet his other financial obligations, such as paying monthly mortgage payments."
Johnson declined further comment.
Ritchie said two judicial committees signed off on Arberry, and his involvement shouldn't be an issue in any event.
"All we're asking for is approval of the funding so we can hire a lobbyist," Ritchie said. "The controversy is about the choice."
Judges are not legislators, so they need someone knowledgeable about the legislative process to represent them and guard their interests, especially with the state facing a $3 billion budget shortfall, said Ann Zimmerman, chief justice for Las Vegas Township Justice Court.
The discussion Tuesday should be about money, not the person the judges have chosen, said Zimmerman, adding that the issue is before the commission only because the county has to approve any contract for more than $50,000.
"We don't need their permission to pick our lobbyist," Zimmerman said. "We're using our money."
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at email@example.com or 702-455-4519.