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Intent, precedent and charters undercut term-limits ruling

What’s the difference between a mayor and a city councilman?

According to the Nevada Supreme Court, nothing.

The court ruled 5-2 Thursday that voter-approved term limits mean a person can only serve 12 years on a local government body, regardless of whether that person is serving as a member of the council, the mayor, or a combination of the two.

The ruling has implications up and down the state; most immediately, it prevents Jessica Sferrazza and Dwight Dorch — who each served 12 years on the Reno City Council — from running for mayor this year. But it also has implications for Southern Nevada: Las Vegas City Council members such as Stavros Anthony (now serving his second term) and Steve Ross (now in his third, and presumably final, term) can either serve only one term as mayor or be barred from seeking the job, respectively.

And Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen, who’s served on that city’s council since 1987, long before term limits were imposed in 1998, should have reached his lifetime limit in 2010. Under Thursday’s ruling, Hafen was thus presumably ineligible to serve when he was elected to a second term as mayor last year.

But here’s the thing: The Supreme Court majority is wrong — about the intent of the term-limits law, about their own past approach in similar cases and about Reno government.

First, the majority said in its ruling that the intent of the term-limit framers was “to preclude continuing service on the governing body generally.” But Republican consultant Sig Rogich — the man who helped qualify term limits for the ballot in 1998 — says the measure was never intended to count years spent serving on a city council against the time a person could serve as mayor.

“I personally don’t agree with that decision,” Rogich said Thursday. “I was surprised.”

Second, the majority acknowledges the term-limits law is vague, and thus requires interpretation. But in the past, when a law has been vague, justices have resolved the conflict in favor of the right of people to choose their representatives.

Said the court in the 1996 case of Nevada Judges Association v. Lau, quoting the 1940 case of Gilbert v. Breithaupt: “The right to hold public office is one of the valuable rights of citizenship. The exercise of this right should not be declared prohibited or curtailed except by plain provisions of law. Ambiguities are to be resolved in favor of eligibility to office.” (Emphasis added.)

Or how about State of Nevada Employees Association v. Miller, in 1994: “Most importantly, we conclude that the people’s ability to choose a governor should not be restricted by an ambiguous provision. … If a constitutional provision is capable of being understood in two or more senses by reasonably informed persons, it must be liberally construed in favor of the right of the voters to exercise their electoral choice.” (Emphasis added.)

But in this case, the court majority did the opposite.

Third, the majority ignored the important history of the Reno charter. Under the 1971 charter, voters elected seven council members, and they chose one of their number to serve as mayor. But in 1977, the charter was changed, to elect the mayor at large, and to imbue him or her with special powers (running meetings, calling special meetings, making appointments, deputizing additional police officers in times of emergency, etc.).

But the majority concluded that because the charter says the mayor is part of the “local governing body” of Reno, the term limits law applies regardless of that charter change. Two justices — Nancy Saitta and Ron Parraguirre — got it right in their dissent, however.

“The mayor is elected to the office of mayor, not to the office of council member,” they wrote. “These duties are among those that set the mayor apart from the six city council members, establishing the office of mayor as a separate and distinct office.”

Indeed it is, or it was, until Thursday’s ruling.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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