Bill would halt plan to give Reno a sixth ward, maintain at-large city council position
Devon Reese announced his plans last month to run for re-election for a seat on the Reno City Council.
However, if SB12 — a bill from the City of Reno Charter Committee, a group made up of six appointees from state legislators and seven from the Reno City Council — doesn’t pass, Reese’s at-large seat could be removed from the city council. The bill would also eliminate gendered language from the Reno City Charter and add green infrastructure projects to local improvements.
Lawmakers in 2017 set in motion a process to create a sixth ward in Reno in 2024, rather than an at-large seat representing all city residents. If passed, SB12 would reverse that plan.
The bill had a hearing on Monday in the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
The charter committee’s effort to repeal the 2017 bill came down to representation for constituents, said Matthew Work, president of the City of Reno Charter Committee, remembering a personal experience trying to contact city government when his ward member was unavailable and the at-large member met with him to talk about his concerns.
“We live in a democracy, and ultimately more access to government is better,” Work said ahead of the hearing.
However, the 2017 bill to get rid of the at-large member and add a sixth ward was also promoted with the stated intent of increasing constituents’ access to government — but from a different perspective. In April 2017, Andrew Diss, then chair of the City of Reno Charter Committee, said during a hearing for the bill that an additional ward would allow council members to easily meet with constituents because the geographic area of the wards would be smaller.
“City council and local government is the government closest to the people,” Diss said at the time. “It is easier for candidates to run for election in their wards, go door to door and meet their constituents face to face, if their campaigning is limited to a smaller geographic region rather than citywide.”
The case for an at-large council member
In 2017, Reno adopted ward-only voting, meaning ward representatives are elected only by the residents of the geographical ward they represent and do not have citywide elections the same way the mayor and the at-large council member do. If Reno got rid of the at-large member and instead had a sixth council member representing a new ward, Reno citizens would have two council members — the mayor and their ward representative — representing them on the council, rather than three.
Additionally, Reese said the at-large council member has a unique job on the council. It’s a job he said being the youngest of 10 children helped prepare him for.
“I'm kind of a family member who is the glue guy. I can navigate all of the sibling relationships. And they'll come to me when they have a legal issue or family issue, they're asking for advice. And I navigate all the different personality types,” Reese said. “I try to make sure that we're all going in the same direction — happy, healthy, well — and I want all my siblings to succeed, right? It's sort of the same way on the council.”
Reese said the at-large member meets with other council members to make sure everyone is on the same page and fully informed before a policy is voted on. He also said to no fault of their own, ward representatives can sometimes work in silos by focusing on the needs of their own ward, but the at-large council member works to make sure council members are also looking at the needs of everyone.
“The at-large member is the bridge-builder between wards,” Reese said. “Each board member would probably tell you they have a vision for all of Reno. But because human nature is what it is and you can only work on so much at any given time, sometimes people are thinking what is good for my ward versus what is good for the entire city.”
Though representing the city as a whole may seem like part of the mayor’s responsibilities, Reese said the at-large council member works more to represent the other council members and their constituents while the mayor works to represent the City of Reno on a larger scale.
“The mayor, whoever it is, and particularly with our current mayor, occupies a stage and a place of national and regional importance,” Reese said. “They are the head of the government. When the governor calls the City of Reno, they aren't looking to speak to council members.”
The at-large council member works with constituents on a one-to-one level. Particularly if there’s a dispute between a constituent and their council member, the at-large can contact the constituent and act as an additional representative.
“The at-large member is another voice for people who, perhaps they disagree with their ward member. Say you live in Ward 1 and your vision and politics are very different than the Ward 1 member. You still can go to the at-large member and the mayor to try to positively affect your vision,” Reese said. “So it just means that every person in the City of Reno has three representatives that they can turn their attention to.”
During Monday's hearing, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, who served as the at-large representative, cited partisan politics on the city council as a reason to pass SB12.
"Oftentimes, a council member politically will feel different than a constituent and cannot work with both sides," Schieve said following the hearing.
During the hearing, Schieve said after Reno adopted ward-only voting in 2017, ward representatives rarely have showed up to citywide events.
“I’m often told ‘not my ward, not my problem,’” Schieve said.
After one testimony in support of SB12 Ryan Sheltra, the general manager and son of the original owner of the Bonanza Casino, several Reno residents testified in opposition because of the lack of public input for the bill prior to its hearing.
"I am shocked that our elected officials or their appointees make these decisions without consulting the public," said Margo Piscevich, a Reno resident and former attorney.
Christine Saunders from the Progressive Leadership Alliance also testified in opposition, calling for redistricting and criticizing the number of appointees to the Reno City Council. Her comments come after a third city council member was appointed rather than elected in the last three years.
“It is clear the current system does not represent the residents of Reno,” Saunders said. “Not to mention many of the current city council members have not been elected and they might be more responsive if they were accountable to the community rather than appointed.”
Noe Orosco, the program manager for Silver State Voices, also testified in opposition.
“This bill seeks to take us back to 2017. In reality, it takes us back to 1964 because at-large districts were forming until the Voting Rights Act,” Orosco said.
If the charter committee isn’t able to persuade lawmakers to pass SB12, the city has from the last day of the 2023 legislative session — June 5 — to the time elections start — March 2024 — to draw up the lines for the sixth ward, Nic Ciccone, Reno’s legislative relations program manager, said.
However, Reese said he is not nervous about the unstable nature of his seat.
“I have made clear that I'm running for city council. I have not said I'm running for the at-large member or the sixth ward or whatever ward I could be put into, because I don't know what will happen in the legislative cycle,” Reese said.
Part of the reason Reese announced his plans for re-election more than a year before the filing deadline for a seat that may not exist by then is that Feb. 15 marks four years since Reese joined the city council.
“All I'm saying to the world is I like what I'm doing, I feel like there’s value in what we've accomplished and I want to keep that going,” Reese said.
Updated 3/13/2023 at 6:30 p.m. to include details from Monday’s hearing.
Updated 3/14/2023 at 9:15 a.m. to include details about those who testified.