When it comes to choosing a leader for Nevada’s biggest water agency the process is as clear as Lake Mead mud.
So far names of two men angling to fill the dual role about to be vacated by Southern Nevada Water Authority and Las Vegas Valley Water District general manager Patricia Mulroy have bubbled to the surface.
Also bubbling up are complaints about a murky hiring process leaving the public and even those who will make the hire in the dark about key details.
Publicly lobbying for the job are John Entsminger, the water agency’s senior deputy general manager and Mulroy’s choice for successor, and Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown who worked for the water agency from 1990-97, early on as a lobbyist and eventually as a manager.
Entsminger is considered the inside man — he’s been with the water agency since 1999 and has Mulroy’s unqualified endorsement. She notes that he has been the lead negotiator on Colorado River water issues and was one of three U.S. representatives chosen to handle negotiations between seven Colorado river states and Mexico, suggesting a high level of credibility among peers.
Brown, a former Las Vegas City Councilman now on the Clark County Board of Commissioners, positions himself as the outsider, vowing to pare back expenses at an agency where, he says, more than 400 of about 1,500 employees have salaries topping six figures.
“You need to tear back a couple layers and start getting to the true staffing needs,” Brown said. “It is time to ask new questions.”
Whether anyone else is interested in the job, which pays Mulroy $298,534 annually, or even what the qualifications and job description are, remain unknown.
Yet the agenda for next Tuesday’s Las Vegas Valley Water District board meeting includes an item to select a new general manager. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which meets on the third Thursday of each odd-numbered month, hasn’t posted an agenda for its next meeting.
“This has all gotten a life of its own that has kind of been directed by Ms. Mulroy,” said Steve Sisolak, who serves on both the water district and water authority boards. “I don’t think there has been any transparency involved in this thing and I’m a little bit disappointed this is the way this is coming out.”
Sisolak said it’s not even clear if anyone bothered to find out whether any qualified candidates working for other Western water agencies would be interested in competing with Entsminger and Brown for the job.
“These are two quality people but at the same time you don’t know who else is available, at least not without looking,” he said.
Mulroy disagreed with Sisolak’s characterization of the process and said the board is free to conduct a broader search if it likes.
The agenda notice “is to get the process started,” she said, adding later that Entsminger has proved capable of the job by performing well despite being handed progressively greater challenges.
“Why spend the money on a recruitment process if you have one of the most capable people in Southern Nevada sitting right there in the organization,” Mulroy said. She compared it to recent internal hires for county executive and to lead the Clark County Department of Aviation.
The next leader of the water authority will need not only strong technical knowledge of the Colorado River and other water issues, but also knowledge of water law and credibility at the negotiating table, Mulroy said.
“You don’t just pluck someone off the street,” Mulroy said. “Their ability to be able to assimilate that kind credibility is really important.”
Mulroy described Brown’s declaration of interest in the job as awkward because as a county commissioner he sits on the water district board.
“It is somebody who is sitting on the board, that makes it extremely awkward,” she said. “If this was an assistant county manager who wanted the job we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Further muddying the waters is Brown’s contention that he’s been offered the agency’s No. 2 position as an incentive to withdraw from consideration for the top post.
“That was offered early on to get me off my interest in the GM position,” Brown said during an interview at the Review-Journal. “That was part of the strategy.”
Brown said he turned it down and was offended “that a commissioner can get juiced into the number two job” of a public agency.
Brown described the offer as coming from “Pat’s advisers,” and named political consultants Billy Vassiliadis and Sig Rogich.
Mulroy said she didn’t make any job offer to Brown.
“I think there are friends of Larry’s that may have been talking to him about taking a different position,” she said.
Vassiliadis said he spoke with Brown weeks ago about several potential career moves but was adamant there was no water district job offer.
“That is not an accurate characterization of our conversation,” Vassiliadis said. “I did not offer him anything.”
Sisolak and Marybeth Scow, another county commissioner and chair of both water agency boards, said they were unaware of any job offers to Brown.
Sisolak said agency personnel have the freedom to hire who they like but added the entire process of finding a new leader appears to have a life of its own.
“I guess the number two would be for the number one to give, but I don’t know who the number one is,” he said.
Thom Reilley, a management consultant and former Clark County manager, said that even if the agency intends to hire from within, officials should make their reasons public.
“It doesn’t really look good,” Reilley said of the process so far, with candidates making public declarations and officials seemingly unaware of what the job might actually entail. “They should just be up front with what they are attempting to do and do it in an open meeting.”
If they are the only candidates, it’s not too soon to compare how Brown and Entsminger would approach the job. The two differ on many policy issues.
Brown, for example, downplays the significance of a plan to import groundwater from Northeastern Nevada to Las Vegas as an option to meet future water demand. The multi-billion-dollar proposal has numerous legal and technical hurdles, not the least of which opposition from communities near the proposed water sources that have won legal challenges.
He said the agency should consider other options, such as buying water from agricultural users who consume most of the Colorado River’s output for crops.
“When the value of that water reaches a point those farms no longer need to grow alfalfa and other nonessential crops … we are just going to start buying out the water on the river,” Brown said.
Entsminger, who met last week with the Review-Journal editorial board to talk about his candidacy, says it isn’t that simple. There’s not enough agriculture in Nevada to provide a significant source for urban purchases and buying Colorado River water across state lines is difficult.
“In a lot of the parts of the law of the Colorado River one state can’t buy water from farmers in another state,” Entsminger said, adding that even if one group of users wants to sell to Nevada other entities with higher-priority rights can step in line for the water. “It is not a simple transaction when people start talking about buying agricultural water.”
Entsminger also defended the salaries and staffing levels at the water authority that Brown attacked.
“We have a lot of technical staff at the water district and the water authority,” he said. “But we have kept our payroll flat since 2009.”
Both candidates agreed the agency is moving from an infrastructure-building phase to a period where maintenance and operations will be the priority.
The unusual structure of Mulroy’s position dates back to the origin of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Mulroy was hired as general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1989. In 1991 the Southern Nevada Water Agency was formed as a regional water wholesaler, also run by Mulroy.
The district is overseen by the county commissioners sitting as a separate board. They are responsible for governing district activities and appointing a general manager. The authority’s governing board includes three county commissioners and one city council member each from Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Boulder City and Henderson.
Although the boards are independent, they seek to control costs by sharing redundant services. However, the distinct boards could complicate hiring a new general manager if they can’t reach consensus. Mulroy says infighting could be costly in terms of money and continuity, with the latter key to Southern Nevada maintaining a strong bargaining position on the river.
“We’ve never had that (infighting) and that has given us an incredible advantage on the river,” she said.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0285. Follow him on Twitter @BenSpillman702.