CARSON CITY — The Nevada Supreme Court is wading into whether term-limited Reno City Council members can run for mayor, an issue that was never contemplated when the voter initiative to limit how long elected officials can remain in office was passed in the mid-1990s.
Seventeen years later, the high court wants to delve further into a creeping tentacle and possible unintended consequence raised by Reno mayoral candidate George “Eddie” Lorton.
In a petition filed Monday, Lorton argued that 12-year term limits imposed by voters in 1994 and 1996 should prevent Councilman Dwight Dortch and former Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza from running for mayor. Both are fundraising for the race next year. Councilwoman Sharon Zadra and former Councilman Dave Aiazzi also are considering mayoral bids and could be affected by the ultimate outcome from the court.
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.”
A one-page order signed Wednesday by Chief Justice Kris Pickering said the issues raised by Lorton are of “arguable merit” warranting an answer from the city clerk, voter registrar and the two named potential candidates, Sferrazza and Dortch. The court set a deadline of 30 days for responses.
Sferrazza has retained attorney Bradley Schrager, a Las Vegas partner in the firm of Wolf Rifkin. Schrager, who has done extensive work in the past on election and political matters, declined comment on the pending case.
Sig Rogich, a Republican consultant who helped spearhead the term limit initiative, said Thursday the issue being raised by Lorton was never imagined nearly two decades ago.
“It is an unintended consequence,” Rogich said.
“It would not have been my intent to think that a mayor would have been held as part of a council, although they serve on that council,” Rogich said. “That would have been my honest attempt to answer that at the time.”
But now that the question has percolated, Rogich said he could see where the Supreme Court could find otherwise.
“I think they could do that, yes.”
The 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 kicked in. He was elected mayor in 2009 and re-elected this year. Hafen would have been ineligible for re-election if his years served as a councilman counted toward term limits for serving on that “governing body.”
Complicating the issue are 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, sought by state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said termed-out Reno City Council members cannot run for mayor. Under the constitutional provision, a person who has served 12 years as a council member “is not eligible to be elected as the mayor because the mayor is a member of Reno’s local governing, body,” that opinion said.
Conversely, a 2008 opinion from the attorney general’s office said the offices of mayor and councilman are different “and time in office served by an incumbent in one does not count toward term limitations for the other.”
An 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 the city council, then term limits apply. That opinion, though, did not address whether 12 years served as a council member would preclude serving as mayor — or whether a termed-out mayor could seek a council seat.