CARSON CITY — The slate of potential candidates for Reno mayor was in the hands Tuesday of the Nevada Supreme Court to decide whether current or former City Council members who are barred from re-election by term limits are eligible to run for mayor.
In arguments before the high court, Stephanie Rice, the lawyer for candidate George “Eddie” Lorton, argued that council members who have been in office 12 years cannot run for mayor because term limits prohibit them from serving on the same governing body.
“This is a straightforward case of statutory interpretation,” Rice said in packed Supreme Court chamber.
But John Desmond and Bradley Schrager, representing termed-out council members eyeing a mayoral bid, countered that the office of mayor is distinctly different than that of the six council members.
Former Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza and current Councilman Dwight Dortch both are raising money for the race to replace longtime Mayor Bob Cashell, elected in 2002 and termed out from seeking re-election. Two others are also contemplating the race.
Justices peppered lawyers on both sides with direct and hypothetical questions.
“Can Mayor Cashell run for one of the council seats?” Justice James Hardesty asked.
“Absolutely,” said Desmond, representing Dortch. But Desmond said Dortch could not move to a different ward within the city and run again for a council seat.
Rice disagreed, countering that allowing the mayor to run for a council seat and continue voting on city matters would be contrary to the voters’ intent to abolish career politicians.
Justice Nancy Saitta appeared unconvinced by Rice’s arguments.
“The mayor isn’t elected to the City Council,” she said. “He’s elected mayor.”
Schrager, representing Sferrazza, said the issue was whether constitutional term limits imposed by voters in 1996 were based on the office held or the governing body on which that office serves.
He said the City Charter sets “myriad” responsibilities for the mayor different than council members.
Justice Michael Cherry noted that while the mayor may have additional ceremonial duties, the mayor is still an equal voting member of the City Council.
Hardesty wondered aloud if the Legislature could amend a city charter to create distinct duties for other council members, thereby exempting them from seeking different seats after being termed out.
Chief Justice Mark Gibbons said the court was aware that the candidate filing period begins in March and suggested a ruling would come before then.
“The court recognizes this is an issue of great public importance and publicity,” Gibbons said.
The ramifications of the court’s ruling are not confined to Reno. Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen served 22 years on the Henderson Council, 10 of which came after term limits kicked in. He was elected mayor in 2009 and re-elected last year. Hafen would have been ineligible for re-election if his years as a councilman counted toward term limits for serving on that governing body.
A 2011 opinion from legislative lawyers said termed-out Reno council members could not run for mayor because the mayor is a member of Reno’s local governing body.
But a 2008 opinion from the attorney general’s office said the offices are different and that being termed out in one does not count toward term limitations for the other.
An even earlier opinion from the attorney general’s office was less clear. Issued in 1996, it said that if a mayor functions as a member of a city council, then term limits apply. But it did not specifically address whether 12 years served as a council member would preclude serving as mayor.