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City starting project reforms

Although the investigation into whether Las Vegas officials engaged in improprieties with developer Bill Walters has quieted down, the city is instituting reforms it says will make government better.

City Manager Doug Selby vowed to tell the mayor and City Council any concerns he and staff have about proposed projects, even if council members support the project.

That is, Selby acknowledged, something that didn’t always happen in the past.

Staff also has been presenting hard numbers on how taxpayers would benefit from land transactions, part of the state’s public purpose doctrine.

“There was a breach of the public purpose doctrine,” Selby said of the Walters case at a special session of the City Council on Monday. The public purpose doctrine, he said, requires deals to “provide benefits to all citizens, not just one citizen or a small group.”

Also, elected officials and the mayor would not be allowed to negotiate with developers without the knowledge of the city manager.

The reforms, and what is apparently an ongoing investigation, revolve around the city’s dealings with Walters and his Royal Links Golf Course for about a decade.

The attorney general’s office commissioned an independent report after media reports raised questions about a city deal with Walters in 2005.

The golf course developer and former professional gambler sought permission from Las Vegas to build 1,200 homes on golf course land Las Vegas had designated as an odor buffer around its wastewater treatment plant.

The City Council originally approved the deal in November, 2005, before reversing that decision when then-Attorney General George Chanos announced his investigation.

In deals between the city and Walters going back 10 years, the report found improprieties.

“It appears that there has been a consistent pattern of political and financial favoritism granted to Mr. Walters’ business entities by the City of Las Vegas,” stated the report, which was prepared for the attorney general’s office by the law firm Senn Meulemans.

All of the reforms have to do with how staff and the elected council and mayor communicate and deal with each other.

But Chanos has said that the City Council had enough information to know it was a bad deal when it originally approved lifting the deed restriction.

Councilwoman Lois Tarkan-ian was the lone vote against the project in the first vote.

Councilman Steve Wolfson later called the item back before the City Council after a Las Vegas police report found former Las Vegas Public Works Director Richard Goecke may have committed criminal acts in the late 1990s that benefited Walters and hurt taxpayers.

When Chanos announced that his office would conduct an investigation, the council rescinded the vote.

Some of the reforms being instituted now go to what was implied by the attorney general’s report — that Goecke was being directed by elected officials to benefit Walters.

Now, the city manager’s office has to be contacted if council members or the mayor are directing staff on projects that will create new commitments of city resources, waiving fees, or that will require future council action.

Other reforms include:

• All land transactions between the city and a private party will be competitive in nature, unless determined otherwise by the City Council.

• Council members will receive joint briefings, in order to ensure they are getting more consistent information from staff.

City Attorney Brad Jerbic said the joint briefings won’t violate the open meeting law because there won’t be a quorum and are informational.

“These are briefings, not a consensus building process,” he said. “Staff has been instructed that if those meetings turn into consensus building, they are to stop immediately.”

Tarkanian said the reforms were a starting point.

“I think we have made a significant start. There’s much more to do,” she said.

She said she wants free access to get opinions directly from lower level staff, without their administrator present.

Wolfson said he could see the improvements in the way the city operates.

“City business is progressing. We have a better city government today than yesterday because of the Walters matter,” Wolfson said.

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