Seldom is heard a dissenting word from Henderson’s City Council

Henderson’s City Council has voted on more than 3,000 issues over the past three years. And all five members have agreed almost every time.

All but 18 of those 3,004 votes were unanimous, and not once did the council vote to reject a proposal, according to a review of meeting records.

Such a high level of unanimity — more than 99.4 percent — suggests most discussion and disagreement among city councilors and staff happens behind closed doors, said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at UNLV.

“They don’t bring it up for a vote until it’s resolved,” he said.

Council members largely agreed, though they see such behind-the-scenes gathering of consensus as a good thing, proof they’re working hard to solve problems.

“I don’t see a problem with working things out ahead of time,” Councilwoman Gerri Schroder said.

‘GET TO COMPROMISE’

It’s not surprising to see a lot of un­animous votes. Much City Council business is routine: accepting reports, making appointments to boards, approving business licenses.

But a rate of more than 99 percent, Damore said, is “quite stunning.”

Council members said the numbers reflect how well they prepare for meetings ahead of time.

“I think we’re a council that works well together,” Councilman Sam Bateman said. “We like each other, and I think we try to get to compromise.”

City staff give council members regular private “briefings” on pending business between meetings, which lets the council members ask questions and suggest changes.

Schroder said she also likes to meet privately with both sides of an issue, as she did recently on a controversial Blue Bell ice cream distribution center she ultimately voted to approve.

Such work allows council members to push for changes to proposals before they’re brought to a vote. And potentially controversial projects are often delayed so developers can host community forums and work out agreements with city staff, Bateman said.

“It is much better for the staff to be able to negotiate with developers … and reach a consensus than it is to fight that out in an open meeting,” Councilman John Marz said.

All that preparation helps meetings run more smoothly, council members said. Henderson’s city councilors are part-time, but Marz said he’s in City Hall for meetings two to three afternoons a week and spends at least 20 hours a week on city business.

“It’s very hard to try to work out a land-use application from the dais,” Bateman said. “I think it’s important for people to know how much time we spend on these issues before we get to a City Council meeting.”

PUBLIC’S VOICE

The result, though, is that many issues have effectively been decided — and disagreements smoothed over — before the council’s twice-a-month Tuesday evening meetings begin.

Jim Anderson, a Henderson resident who helped lead the fight against the Blue Bell center, said he and a fellow resident had a series of private briefings with council members ahead of the meeting. But when it came time for the public vote, he said, it was clear the council had made up its mind to approve the project.

“They will politely sit and listen,” Anderson said, but the decision has already been made.

The April 21 hearing on Blue Bell included a rare dissenting vote from Bateman — the first time any council member had voted no since November.

Damore said such behind-the-scenes dealings limit the public’s input. They also could violate the law.

Under the Nevada open meetings law, council members can meet privately with anyone they like so long as a quorum, or majority of the council, is not present.

So Henderson council members get their staff briefings alone or in groups of two, Schroder said, often holding the meetings back-to-back so there’s never a majority of the council in a room at once.

Depending on your view, that’s either an effort to comply with the law or an effort to get around it. The open meetings law says back-to-back private meetings are illegal if “held with the specific intent to avoid the provisions of this chapter.”

The state attorney general has said such gatherings, nicknamed “walking quorums,” can violate the law if they are used to “form a secret consensus or vote out of sight of the public.”

There’s no evidence the Henderson council has taken an actual vote in secret. But council members’ comments suggest they do try to reach consensus — with staff if not with each other — before public meetings begin.

In passing the open meetings law, the Nevada Legislature found “that all public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

The people, in essence, are supposed to see how the sausage is made. But in Henderson, they usually see just the final product.

Damore said much the same process happens in the Legislature and other local bodies.

It’s far more difficult to do the same kind of analysis for Clark County commissioners or other city councils because of the way their minutes are kept. But public dissent is also rare in those bodies, according to interviews and a less comprehensive review of the minutes.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS

The Review-Journal analyzed minutes or other records for 79 Henderson council meetings since February 2012, immediately after the newest member, John Marz, was sworn in.

The analysis left out votes that are largely formalities: approving agendas and minutes, as well as referring newly introduced proposals to future meetings.

The tally does include items on the council’s “consent agenda,” which can include votes on multimillion-dollar contracts but also such items as accepting a staff report.

The council approves all consent items at a meeting, sometimes dozens at a time, with a single vote.

More than 70 percent of items the council voted on were on the consent agenda. Even when leaving out all consent items, the rate of unanimous votes is 98 percent.

Council meetings are often short, with about half lasting less than an hour. At 65 of the meetings — more than 80 percent of the time — there was no dissent.

And one of the 18 “nay” votes was meant as a joke: Bateman voted against a June 2013 measure to name him mayor pro tempore.

“Just some comic relief,” he said in an email.

Marz voted nay more often than anyone else — nine times — but said he didn’t know why that was, except that council members’ different backgrounds make them see issues differently.

On the other end of the spectrum, Councilwoman Debra March dissented just once, on a December 2013 resolution to rezone some commercial land as residential. Neither March nor Mayor Andy Hafen responded to requests for comment.

Council members seemed puzzled by questions about their unanimous voting. Schroder said she works hard to get the input of residents affected by a particular issue.

“I think that’s one of the reasons that people love living in Henderson, is because we make sure that people are involved,” Schroder said.

Contact Eric Hartley at ehartley@reviewjournal.com or 702-550-9229. Find him on Twitter: @ethartley

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