Sisolak says called-in testimony by Titus smacks of special treatment


A Clark County commissioner is complaining about a congresswoman testifying by phone at an April 21 meeting in which the board narrowly approved a deal with developer Jim Rhodes.

The deal enables Rhodes to apply for higher-density development than zoning allows on 2,400 acres he owns near Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Commission Chairman Rory Reid let Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who was in Washington, D.C., read a statement over a speakerphone urging the board to reject the pact.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak said it smacked of special treatment because average citizens aren't given that privilege.

He questioned whether Reid, a Democrat, would have let a Republican delegate such as U.S. Sen. John Ensign call in. Sisolak, a Democrat himself, said political allies of commissioners shouldn't be treated more favorably.

"This is hard for me because Dina is a friend, but this is wrong," said Sisolak, who voted to settle with Rhodes. "Nobody should get treatment based on who you are."

He contends that it's one thing when a commissioner who is out of town participates by phone, but it's different when someone who is not on the board does so.

The county has no policy about phoned-in testimony, so it is left to the commission chairman to decide how testimony can be given, said Erik Pappa, county spokesman.

Sisolak argued that the county should create a policy that applies to everyone, whether it's allowing all people to testify by phone or no one. He said he will request that the board discuss a potential policy in the coming weeks.

He recalled that when Jan Jones was mayor of Las Vegas, she was allowed to cut in front of people waiting to vote, and the incident caused an uproar. Jones later apologized.

Reid said he was informed the day before the meeting that Titus planned to testify but didn't learn until the next morning that she wanted to do it by phone.

He said he gave the go-ahead because Red Rock is in Titus' congressional district, and she authored the law at the heart of the county's dispute with Rhodes.

"I think it was relevant," Reid said. "It's a unique circumstance, and she had a unique role in the hearing. I didn't think it would be controversial to allow her to testify."

Andrew Stoddard, Titus' spokesman, said Titus decided to testify after she read a newspaper article the day before the meeting that mentioned a letter she wrote in 2003.

Titus thought the story exaggerated the letter's significance in the county's case, he said. "She wanted to set the record straight."

In the letter she wrote that state-imposed restrictions would lessen the value of Rhodes' land and make him more willing to sell to the county. Rhodes' attorneys have argued that it showed the state and county singled him out unfairly.

During her testimony, Titus, who is in a tight race for re-election, described how she spearheaded state legislation seven years ago to protect Red Rock, a hub for hiking, climbing, biking and picnicking.

A federal judge last year overruled the state law, saying Red Rock was a local natural resource, putting it outside the state's authority.

The state law mirrored the county's rules restricting Rhodes to building one house per two acres on the former mining site near Red Rock. Rhodes hopes to build a higher-density subdivision but opponents want him to stick to the current zoning.

Titus said the state has a good chance of winning a federal appeal it filed several months ago. If the state wins, it would strengthen the county's case, she said, urging the commission to vote against the agreement with Rhodes.

Her words drew spirited applause and cheering from Rhodes' foes in the audience.

Sisolak was visibly annoyed. He and Commissioner Susan Brager -- both of whom voted for the agreement later -- asked that the phone lines be opened to all callers.

A call-in number was displayed for viewers watching the televised meeting. A half a dozen people phoned but only one spoke.

Sisolak said Titus could have had an aide read the written statement at the podium, but she wanted to read it herself to heighten the emotional impact.

"She did it for effect," Sisolak said.

Stoddard said she has been involved in the issue a long time and wanted to deliver the statement herself.

"This is an important issue that she is passionate about," Stoddard said.

Sisolak said phoned-in testimony is done rarely, if ever, at local government meetings.

Representatives from Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson said their city clerks couldn't remember phone testimony being taken at council meetings, other than from council members who couldn't attend.

In Las Vegas, council members would decide whether a caller could testify, said Jace Radke, city spokesman.

If someone wanted to testify by phone in North Las Vegas, that person would have arranged it well in advance so the equipment could be set up. Henderson has no basic procedures for handling this type of testimony.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani recalled that within the past year a woman who was too physically impaired to attend a county zoning meeting testified by speakerphone.

She said she'd be receptive to anything that would get residents more engaged, whether it's letting them call or e-mail during meetings, or holding some commission hearings at night so more people could attend.

"The more the merrier," Giunchigliani said.

Reid said he'd be willing to discuss a formal policy, but he would lean toward banning call-in testimony rather than opening communication channels that would make meetings harder to manage.

Face-to-face dialogue is more effective, plus a caller is more likely to launch into a belligerent rant than someone who's at the microphone, facing the board, Reid said. "I think it would be a mistake to allow telephonic testimony as normal," he said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

 

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