Nevada Supreme Court seeks cities' input on term limits

CARSON CITY — The Nevada Supreme Court on Tuesday invited cities to join the legal debate over whether city council members who are termed out from seeking re-election can run for mayor.

In a brief order signed by Justice Mark Gibbons, the court said input from the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities “would be of assistance” as justices consider a lawsuit filed by Reno mayoral candidate George “Eddie” Lorton.

Lorton petitioned the high court in October, arguing that term limits imposed by voters in 1996 should prevent current and former council members who have served 12 years on the council from running for mayor in next year’s election.

Former Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza and current Councilman Dwight Dortch are considering mayoral bids and both will have served their maximum allowed time in their respective council seats. Two others, current councilwoman Sharon Zadra and David Aiazzi, formerly on the council, could also be affected.

Lorton’s petition claims the Nevada Constitution “prohibits a person from being re-elected to the governing body as a whole, regardless of which seat the person seeks to serve.”

Attorneys for interested council members argue the mayor serves a distinct role apart from serving on the city’s governing board.

Bradley Schrager, a lawyer representing Sferrazza, called Lorton’s petition a political ploy.

“This suit is an office-seeker’s cynical parlor trick, played on the residents of the city for political advantage,” he wrote in a response to the suit. “It lacks legal basis, and this court should not reward him with the extraordinary relief he seeks.”

Dortch, represented by lawyer John Desmond, said in his response that the offices of mayor and city council members are distinct. He argued the constitution doesn’t impose term limits on governing bodies, but instead governing offices.

It’s a question that didn’t come up when term limits were debated 17 years ago.

Potential ramifications are not confined to Reno. Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen served 22 years on the Henderson City Council, 10 of which came after term limits were imposed. He was elected mayor in 2009 and re-elected this 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.

The conundrum is complicated by conflicting opinions from the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the legal staff of the Nevada Legislature and the attorney general’s office.

A 2011 opinion from legislative lawyers said termed-out Reno City Council members cannot run for mayor. In contrast, a 2008 opinion from the attorney general’s office said just the opposite, concluding that the offices of mayor and council members are different “and time in office served by an incumbent in one does not count toward term limitations for the other.”