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Some want to keep insiders from running for City Council

Anyone who sets foot in the naturally lit marble foyer would agree Las Vegas City Hall is nice.

Councilman Bob Coffin just doesn’t want people thinking it’s too cozy.

To that end Coffin, a former state legislator, wants to ban influential appointed employees and members of the Planning Commission from running for City Council.

The idea, he says, is to prevent special assistants to council members, formerly called liaisons, and planning commissioners from leveraging their professional influence into campaign cash and political power.

It’s a proposal that is likely to cause friction in City Hall, where both special assistants and planning commissioners have regularly sought election to the council, with varying degrees of success.

“Quite a few people from the Planning Commission have run for office, and they’ve approached developers and other people that they have influence over,” Coffin said. “Anything that puts you up against a rule or regulation then puts you at the mercy of the planning commissioners. Who gives you assistance with planning commissioners? Council members and their staff.”

Coffin isn’t the only one who is queasy about the prospect of influential appointees using their jobs as springboards to the City Council.

Former legislator Bob Beers, recently elected to fill the remainder of Ward 2 Councilman Steve Wolfson’s term after Wolfson resigned to become Clark County district attorney, said he encountered potential donors who were uneasy making a contribution because Ric Truesdell, another candidate in the race, is on the Planning Commission.

“Yes, there are people who feel intimidated,” said Beers, who wouldn’t identify them by name. “Yeah, they feel ratcheted, therefore they don’t want to talk to anybody about it.”

Coffin, whose opponents in the Ward 3 race last year included Adriana Martinez, then a liaison to Ward 1 Council­woman Lois Tarkanian, and Steve Evans, then a planning commissioner, said he, too, heard from potential donors who felt uneasy going on-record with contributions.

Coffin, like Beers, didn’t name names.

“All I know is it was very hard to raise money last year,” he said.

COFFIN FAVORS RESIGNATIONS

Existing city policy does require special assistants, and other city employees, to take a leave of absence without pay in order to campaign for political office. If they win, they are required to resign before taking office.

Planning commissioners, who aren’t city employees and are paid at a rate of $80 per meeting, are not required to take a leave from the commission while campaigning; but they would need to resign in order to serve on the council, where they would receive a salary.

Coffin said the policy should be changed to require resignations before campaigning, not simply before taking office.

That, he said, would eliminate the potential that a person doing business with council staff or the Planning Commission would be fearful that the lack of a contribution or a contribution to the wrong person could lead to retribution.

“If you were a person seeking not just a favor but justice from your local government, why should you have to look at the person across from you and say, have I got to contribute to this guy?”

He wouldn’t try to discourage planning commissioners or council assistants from running for county, state or other office.

Although Coffin said he would like to change the policy, he is likely to encounter strong resistance in City Hall, where special assistants and planning commissioners commonly seek elected office.

Ward 5 Councilman Ricki Barlow was elected after serving as a council liaison. Former council members Gary Reese and Larry Brown once served on the Planning Commission.

Truesdell, who remains on the Planning Commission, got support for his council campaign from Mayor Carolyn Goodman.

Unless another member leaves the council, there won’t be another city election until next year.

THE COUNTERARGUMENTS

Those who support the existing policy say experience on staff or the Planning Commission helps prepare candidates for serving on the council.

“I feel that you are ready to hit the ground running when you have experience as a planning commissioner or as a liaison,” Martinez said.

She also countered Coffin’s assertion that she used her liaison position with Tarkanian to covertly campaign for City Council.

“I don’t know where he got his information or what he can do to actually prove that because that is not true,” Martinez said.

Truesdell laughed at the notion that his role on the Planning Commission somehow gave him an unfair advantage, given that he lost the race against Beers by 15 percentage points.

“Now suddenly everybody is afraid of poor Ric. You’d think I won,” Truesdell said.

Political consultants who have worked on city races agreed with Martinez and Truesdell, saying the jobs of planning commissioner or liaison aren’t any more likely than others to lead to influence peddling.

Ronni Council, a consultant who worked on behalf of Coffin during his City Council race, said if donors are feeling pressure it’s not because a candidate is on the Planning Commission or works as a liaison.

“People always feel pressured to give money,” Council said. “People only give money because they feel that person might win. That is the whole concept of fundraising.”

Lisa Mayo DeRiso, another consultant, echoed that sentiment.

DeRiso should know. Not only did she work for Beers against Truesdell, she helped Planning Commissioner Byron Goynes challenge Ward 6 Councilman Steve Ross in a recall election earlier this year, which Ross won easily.

In that race Goynes, a longtime member of the Planning Commission, raised less than $10,000 to challenge Ross, who raised more than $140,000.

She said pressure to give varies by personality, not the office-seeker’s day job.

“It is only with certain candidates. Certain candidates are vindictive, certain candidates are not,” DeRiso said.

LEGISLATIVE CHALLENGE

Even if Coffin were able to generate support in City Hall for a more restrictive policy, he could run into more resistance with the Legislature.

Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, in the 2011 session introduced Assembly Bill 433 which would have made it more difficult for public employers to “prohibit, punish or prevent employees from engaging in politics or becoming candidates for public office.”

The bill passed the Assembly 26-16 and the state Senate 12-9 but was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval because, he said, it would have placed undue burdens on public and private employers.

Segerblom, who is running for state Senate, said he might revive the proposal in the next session.

He disputes the assertion by Coffin that planning commissioners or council assistants gain unfair advantage in political races.

“Ric Truesdell proved that if you have a history on the Planning Commission it doesn’t mean people are going to vote for you,” Segerblom said.

“It can actually work the other way around,” he said of tough choices people on planning commissions can be forced to make. “You have to take a stand on some controversial issues that can come back and bite you.”

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at
bspillman@reviewjournal.com.

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