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County lobbyist decision debated

The Clark County Commission’s choice for a lobbyist has raised ethical questions.

Commissioners approved a contract last week for Dan Hart & Associates that could cost the county as much as $102,000 annually.

A month ago, commissioners Rory Reid and Chip Maxfield backed Hart after disclosing that Hart had worked on their political campaigns. Then, in a relatively rare tight vote, the commission decided 4-3 to pursue a contract with Hart.

Reid and Maxfield bucked recommendations from county staffers who rated Hart second-to-last among five applicants based on oral and written tests.

The two commissioners argued that their campaign experience with Hart gave them a clear view of his strengths as a lobbyist — strengths that will be needed in what’s expected to be a crucial legislative session for local governments’ funding.

"I could see why people would raise the questions," Reid said, adding that was why he disclosed his past relationship with Hart.

Hart has been involved in Nevada politics for years and has many political connections in Carson City, Reid said.

In a short synopsis, Hart described the firm’s legislative background as representing Steve Wynn and Mirage Resorts in the early 1990s and more recently a state teachers union.

Hart will work with the county’s legislative team headed by County Counsel Sabra Smith-Newby. His firm will receive $12,000 per month during the session and $6,000 monthly when there is no session.

Reid argued that picking a lobbyist is more subjective than hiring a contractor. He noted that County Manager Virginia Valentine and Smith-Newby seemed to strongly favor Patrick Smith, a consultant with whom they had worked at the City of Las Vegas.

It’s natural to lean toward someone who’s familiar, Reid said. "Generally I defer to staff, but in this case … I disagreed."

A watchdog group contends that interviewers and commissioners with close ties to an applicant should step away to make the process unbiased.

It would have been OK for Reid and Maxfield to endorse Hart, but they should have abstained from voting to avoid even the appearance of conflicting interests, said Julie Tousa, acting president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics.

"It makes you think: Did any of the other companies have a fair shake?" Tousa said.

On June 3, commissioners Bruce Woodbury and Susan Brager joined Reid and Maxfield in voting to forge a contract with Hart. Commissioners Tom Collins, Chris Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly voted against the action.

Giunchigliani and Collins argued that it made no sense to hire a lobbyist before the county has drafted bills for the Legislature. Particular bills might call for expertise that Hart doesn’t have, they said.

"I think it’s a bit premature," Giunchigliani said. "And I’m not convinced we even have to hire a lobbyist this time around."

She recalled that as an assemblywoman, she introduced a short-lived proposal to bar campaign consultants from becoming lobbyists. Her reasoning, she said, was that those who run campaigns can learn the dirty secrets of clients they help get elected, giving them undue leverage with these political leaders.

Collins said that more than one lobbyist might be needed in 2009. In any case, none should be hired before September, when the county begins choosing the most pressing issues to craft into bills, he said.

A seasoned lobbyist will be especially important in the coming session when lawmakers are likely to look at how they might raid the county’s revenue to offset the state’s budget woes, Collins said. And a lobbyist who has formed alliances is always necessary to get anything done in Carson City.

"You have to justify the issue, and legislators have to trust you that it’s a legitimate issue," Collins said.

Giunchigliani said she had doubts about Hart’s qualifications.

"He has very minimal legislative experience," she said.

Brager, however, said she researched the firms vying for the lobbying position and thought that Hart outshone his competitors.

"He will be a presence that will make a difference," Brager said.

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said he voted "no" to awarding Hart the job, but not because he had anything against the consultant. Rather, he preferred Patrick Smith and Lesley Pittman, who were aiming to partner in the lobbying work, Weekly said.

"I was actually shooting for the young guns," he said.

At the June meeting, Woodbury asked Valentine whether multiple lobbyists could be hired under one contract at the same fee. Valentine replied that it might be advantageous to contract with diverse lobbyists, given that an estimated 1,000 bills must be monitored.

"You can cover more territory and get into more depth," Valentine said, but added that it might cost more.

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

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