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BLOG: Reno charter flap points out a worthwhile change in local government term limits

CARSON CITY – I’ve always thought term limits were a stupid idea.

If the voters want to re-elect a politician who they think is doing a good job time and time again, they should have that right. I’ve seen enough wayward politicians tossed from office by fed-up voters to know that we’ve always had term limits. They’re called elections.

But those same voters disagree with me: Back in 1994 and 1996, they imposed term limits on state and local government officials that generally allow 12 years in any one office. And elected officials have been trying to get around them ever since.

A former attorney general ruled that term limits only apply prospectively – although the language of the voter amendment clearly intended them to be retroactive. Other cases have parsed the exact date a person took the oath of office to allow an extra term. And it’s still an open question whether they apply to offices such as sheriff or district attorney, since those officials are not part of a “local governing body.”

But a recent amendment to a bill revising Reno’s city charter brought the term limits issue into stark relief once again.

First, a little background: In 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in the case of Lorton v. Jones that term limits apply to a person’s entire tenure on a city council, including the office of mayor. That means if you serve one term on the council, you can only serve two terms as mayor, for a total of three terms or 12 years total.

The decision surprised and shocked most people in Nevada, who up to that point had assumed that the mayor’s office was separate and distinct from that of council member. In the case at issue in Lorton, a Reno city councilwoman who’d served 12 years wanted to run for mayor, but was rebuffed.

So state Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, attached an amendment to the Reno charter bill (changes to the charter must be approved by the Legislature). The amendment removed the mayor as a member of the council, creating a separate office that has no vote on the council, but can veto any legislation passed by council members. The clear intent was to comply with Lorton while allowing Reno officials to serve 12 years on the council and an additional 12 years as mayor.

But there was just one little thing.

In removing the mayor from the council, the amendment also removed the mayor from the “local governing body.” As a result, term limits likely would not apply to the mayor at all. If the charter had been so amended, a person could presumably serve indefinitely as mayor.

That certainly didn’t appear to be the intent: Current Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve – who asked for the amendment – told the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Anjeanette Damon that she didn’t want to be removed from term limits.

But the move didn’t go over well: In the Senate, the amended charter revision bill passed on a party-line vote, with all Republicans opposed. In the Assembly, the amendment was not concurred in, leaving only the original charter revisions intact. The Senate later decided to discard the amendment, leaving only the original charter revisions in the bill.

(Another issue was the fact that the revisions to the Reno charter had been considered by a committee that had specifically rejected changing the mayor’s role in light of the Lorton case.)

But the amendment has pointed out a potentially worthwhile change in local government term limits rules that might be something the larger local governments in Nevada — including Henderson and Las Vegas — should consider, with a slight change. The Segerblom Amendment could add language that says, notwithstanding the fact that the mayor is no longer a member of the “local governing body,” he or she would still be subject to voter-approved term limits of three terms, or 12 years. This would restore the state of the law to what everybody thought it was prior to Lorton: a 12-year limit on serving on the council, and a separate 12-year limit of serving as mayor.

Again, I think if the voters want to re-elect a particularly popular elected official, they should be able to do just that. But if you want Nevada’s mayors to be considered separate offices and not just another member of their city councils, adding term limits for the mayor in the language of the Segerblom Amendment could be the way to do it, and still remain within the spirit of the term-limits initiative.

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