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A tale of two mayors and plenty of problems

So, how badly does one have to screw up in local government to get tossed?

As badly as North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck, but even more than Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen.

In lightly noticed municipal elections Tuesday, Buck lost her bid for another term in the near-failed state of North Las Vegas, after ex-state Sen. John Lee successfully argued that Buck’s tenure had been marked by bad decisions. Lee’s victory was decisive, 54 percent to 36 percent.

Meanwhile, Hafen faced six relative unknowns in Henderson, and garnered 55 percent of the vote, notwithstanding reams of recent negative publicity over a fantastical land deal aimed at building a sports arena.

(In Las Vegas, three incumbent councilmen won re-election, two by very wide margins.)

North Las Vegas’ travails were widely known. The city took an especially hard hit in the recession. Notwithstanding declining revenues, city officials unwisely decided to move forward with plans to build a new sewage treatment plant. (After a wastewater pipeline plan was scrapped, North Las Vegas simply began discharging its treated water into a wash, sparking a legal standoff with Clark County.)

In addition, North Las Vegas built a new City Hall, a nice place from which to fight with its labor unions. City Manager Timothy Hacker advanced a radical theory that hard financial times justified suspending collective bargaining contracts. This week, an attorney general’s opinion dismissed that idea.

The city had to close its jail and rent space from the city of Las Vegas detention center. Fire stations have been temporarily shuttered.

But the biggest factor in Buck’s loss was not the city’s woes, but her opponent. Lee built up name recognition over more than 13 years of service in the state Legislature and brought credibility (and fundraising ability) to his challenge. While Lee’s campaign slogan might well have been “I couldn’t possibly do worse,” he showed an ability to hit the ground running.

Over in Henderson, there were no big-name challengers. But Henderson’s incumbents did their best to provide material to their opponents.

In the last few years, the council suddenly dismissed its former city manager, Mary Kay Peck, only to have to settle an easily foreseeable lawsuit for $1.2 million. Its ex-city attorney crashed her car in a drunken accident during work hours, but nonetheless got a $100,000 settlement from the city. Its new city attorney — Josh Reid, son of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — was hired only after job criteria were loosened, and after Harry Reid personally lobbied Hafen on Josh Reid’s behalf.

But it was the stadium deal that has come to characterize the city as a berg of desperate rubes willing to believe nearly anything. Developer Christopher Milam — who’s been sued on fraud allegations and failed to deliver on two other stadium proposals — sold the city on a fantastic plan with an unbelievable financing scheme. Instead of showing skepticism, the city eagerly became a partner with Milam in getting BLM land released on highly favorable terms. Hafen even inquired of Harry Reid about the possibility of getting the Olympics.

When the deal inevitably collapsed — a result everyone but Henderson officials seemed to foresee — lawsuits commenced. Milam is now banished from Henderson, but his lenders inherited the land. It’s far more likely homes will be built there instead of an arena.

Oh, and appointed Councilman John Marz inaugurated his appointed, vacancy-filling tenure with a promise he would not run for a full term, but swiftly proceeded to break his word. That alone should have been grounds for voters to reject him, even if the city was otherwise well-run.

But without any big-name challengers, with opponents unable to raise money, without close media scrutiny and with an electorate marginally interested in competent leadership, Henderson’s leaders kept their jobs.

A day of reckoning may yet come, but the voters will be its victims rather than its instigators.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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