Time and term limits won’t stop Debra March from running for Henderson mayor

After only 21 years, voter-approved term limits have finally succeeded in dislodging the maximum leader of the Hermit Kingdom of Henderson.

But in the secretive enclave known for inside dealing, municipal jobs for family and friends, and resisting outside scrutiny, another insider stands ready to take the helm. At least one political outsider, however, is trying to frustrate that anointment by claiming the law forbids it.

As if “the law” ever stood in the way of anything in Nevada.

Voters enacted term limits in 1994 and 1996, constraining most officials to 12 years. They clearly intended the measure to be retroactive, but then-Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa opined that only terms served after the initiative went into effect would count.

Then came the infamous Lorton v. Jones case in 2014, which held politicians are limited to 12 years — total — on a “local governing body,” regardless of whether that time was spent as a city council member or mayor. That means a person couldn’t serve for 12 years as a council member and then another 12 as mayor.

That sent shock waves across the Hermit Kingdom, where Mayor Andy Hafen has been a fixture of the council since Reagan was president. (He’ll wrap up 32 years on the council this year.) But courts declined to dislodge His Honor, even though city employee (and would-be mayor) Rick Workman urged them to do so.

Now, Workman is back, charging that Councilwoman Debra March is ineligible to run for mayor because she’s already served too long on the council. (March was appointed to a council post in July 2009, and was elected in 2011 and again in 2015.)

Workman correctly notes that the ballot guide for the 1994 and 1996 initiatives says “appointment to an office for any amount of time would be equal to one (1) term.” That means March’s two years as an appointed councilwoman should count as her first term, and her elections in 2011 and 2015 should count as her second and third.

The only problem? That language doesn’t appear in the portion of the law that applies to local government officials.

Besides, under term limits, March gets 12 years, and she’s served only eight thus far, which means she’s eligible for at least one term as mayor. Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske on Thursday came to the same conclusion, and told Workman so in a letter.

But wait, there’s more!

In 1994, the courts ruled that despite a constitutional gubernatorial term limit, Gov. Bob Miller was eligible to run for two full terms in addition to the two years he’d already served. (Miller was elevated after former Gov. Richard Bryan was elected to the Senate in 1988, filling the two years of Bryan’s unexpired term, and seeking re-election in 1990 and 1994.)

The constitution limits the governor to one term if he or she has already served at least two years of somebody else’s term. But the state Supreme Court ruled “years” didn’t mean 365-day calendar years, but rather “official years,” periods of time from the day a governor is sworn in until the term expires. As a result, Miller won another term and served a total of 10 years.

Since March wasn’t appointed until July 2009, she won’t reach her 12-year anniversary until July 2021. But council elections take place in June 2021, so she could be elected without offending the 12-year limit under the Miller precedent, even though she’d have served for 16 years at the end of a second mayoral term.

Workman says he’s going to run for mayor regardless of Cegavske’s ruling. And frankly, the antipathy with which the leaders of the Hermit Kingdom greet Workman’s activism commends him strongly to voters. Very few places need new blood like the Henderson City Council.

But if it happens, it will happen as a result of politics, not Nevada’s bruised-and-battered term limits law.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.