Nevada’s local governments seek more governing powers from Legislature
Local governments in Nevada are seeking more autonomy on how they choose replacements on their boards, organize their management structure and distribute legal notices to the public, and the legislative session that begins Feb. 6 may be their opportunity to get it.
Here’s a breakdown of legislative priorities and proposed bills for the Nevada Association of Counties (NACO), Clark, Elko and Washoe counties, and Carson City.
Streamlining county administrative tasks
NACO is made up of representatives from the state’s 17 counties. Executive Director Vinson Guthreau said the group aims to represent collective county issues and monitor bills that affect county services and administration.
Allowing county commissioners to choose how to fill vacancies
NACO wants to give county commissioners the power to fill vacancies on their own board. State law only allows the Nevada governor to appoint someone if there’s a vacancy on a county commission. The proposed bill would allow county commissioners to create a different process by ordinance and stipulate that the appointee must belong to the same political party as the former officeholder.
City councils in Nevada already have the authority to fill vacancies. After two Reno City Council members resigned back-to-back in 2022, the city council chose to appoint their replacements instead of holding special elections. After Sparks Mayor Ron Smith died in 2020, Sparks City Council appointed Ed Lawson, who was a councilman at the time.
“The cities have, not the luxury, but they have the authority to do either a special election or an appointment. So, looking to get local input on local vacancies,” Guthreau said.
Efforts to streamline county child welfare services
This proposed bill aims to improve how county child welfare services receive and use funding. State law requires the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to award incentive payments to counties with populations over 100,000 that provide child welfare services, which only includes Washoe and Clark counties. The bill would require the agency receiving a grant to provide a description of the agency’s goals for the biennium and then later submit a report on whether goals were met.
It would also require the Legislature’s Joint Interim Standing Committee on Health and Human Services, which under state law reviews child welfare issues, to study funding issues and the effects of decreases in Medicaid reimbursements to child welfare service providers, and suggest solutions.
“Demands on child welfare in all of our counties is high, Clark and Washoe, especially. It’s just a constant service delivery,” Guthreau said. “I call it a solutions bill. We’re not in search of a problem, we’re sort of in search of a solution for what problems we might uncover.”
Authorizes electronic publication of certain notices
State law requires local governments to publish legal notices — advising the public about ordinances under discussion, public hearings and zoning disputes — in a regularly circulating print newspaper. This measure would revise state law to allow the notices to be published online rather than in a printed newspaper.
As newspapers, specifically in rural areas, circulate less often and move online, the requirement for printing legal notices in newspapers can delay government business, Guthreau said.
Not every news source relies on advertising dollars, but some printed newspapers still depend on businesses and jurisdictions to pay for print space to stay afloat and maintain staff. Moving publications of legal notices online could strain some local printed newspapers that are struggling and rely on the consistent revenue stream from the notices.
“Our intent is not to bankrupt local newspapers,” Guthreau said. “But I do think our members believe that if newspapers are going to push to a more online delivery format, that our laws should reflect that delivery.”
Guthreau also said NACO is working with the Nevada Press Association (NPA) and other stakeholders to find the best way to provide legal notices to those without internet access.
“With legislation, the devil is in the details,” said NPA’s lobbyist Kami Dempsey-Goudie. She said NPA is working with NACO to determine what this bill will actually look like by the end of session, but the final result is still a long way off.
Giving local governments autonomy over offroading trails
Another proposed piece of legislation calls for giving local governments more autonomy to govern off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails. Current state law prohibits people, in most cases, from operating an off-road vehicle on a paved highway. The bill would allow local governments to go through an ordinance process to construct, operate or maintain trails for offroading adjacent to paved highways.
“There’s some ambiguity, I think, in law right now in our counties,” Guthreau said. “It’s making it very clear we don’t want to impact paved roads, but sort of allowing for those networks.”
Revising population thresholds for smaller counties
NACO also wants to make minor adjustments to population thresholds in state law, which addresses how many county officials are required in sparsely populated counties. Now, counties with a population of 45,000 or less can combine the duties of two or more county offices into one. They can also spread the duties of one county office to two or more offices. This measure would increase the 45,000-person threshold to 52,000.
For example, many rural or frontier counties don’t have a registrar of voters, but put the county clerk in charge of elections.
It would only affect some rural counties, such as Nye, that are near their population threshold. The Legislature put forth a similar bill in 2011 after the 2010 census.
Clark County strives to create town for new airport development
Clark County is the largest county in Nevada, with almost 2.3 million residents. And almost everything happening this session has some relevance to Clark County residents, according to Clark County Government Relations Manager Joanna Jacob.
One goal Clark County has for the session is to create a small town in an unincorporated area in which to build a second airport to absorb some of Harry Reid International Airport’s passenger load as it continues to surpass record-high visitor counts. Usually, a new town is created by a petition from the area’s residents. But because there are no residents in the area the county wants to build, the Legislature must vet and pass the proposal to create the town.
Clark County also wants to expand the use of funds for programs geared toward people who can’t pay their medical bills at University Medical Center (UMC). The proposed legislation would allow funding to be allocated to programs that would bring a higher reimbursement rate from Medicaid or supplemental payments to UMC.
The county also proposed to revise language in state law on how money from air pollution violation fines is allocated by county commissioners. Under current state law, the county allocates all but 17.5 percent of the funds from these air pollution violation fines to the Clark County School District.
Because of this inconsistent revenue stream, the school district often leaves some of these funds unspent. The bill being drafted would give county commissioners the flexibility to route funding to air quality activities, programs or services — or route it to the account to transmit to the school district.
Clark County is also trying to add an additional representative from the county to the Metro Fiscal Affairs Committee. The committee is made up of two chairs from the county, two city representatives and one member of the public.
However, the county provides 66 percent of the funding for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and Las Vegas pays for the remaining third. Jacob said that to make the representation reflect the funding, the county is asking for an additional seat on the committee.
Washoe County prioritizes removing discriminatory language, public safety changes
Washoe County will not submit their two allotted bill draft requests — or placeholders for actual bills — to the Legislature this session because the topics the county had in mind were submitted by others, said Washoe County Government Affairs Manager Cadence Matijevich.
The county supports giving recorders — the officials in charge of maintaining real estate records in the county — the authority to remove discriminatory language from property agreements.
“This is particularly relevant for Washoe County because we do have older properties,” Matijevich said. “The existing legislation allows for homeowners [or] property owners to essentially register their opposition … but there is not expressed authority for the recorder to go in and do anything about it.”
Matijevich said her own residence has documents with discriminatory language stating who can and can’t reside on the property — typically saying white people can, but people of African or Asian descent can’t.
“It’s racist, mostly. It talks about who can own and reside in properties,” Matijevich said. “It’s a relic and not a good one.”
Washoe County also wants to allow certain government vehicles besides police, firefighters and ambulances to be equipped with a blue light. A non-flashing blue light is typically used by vehicles responding to traffic safety incidents, such as a car accident or debris on the road.
“It is illegal for snow plows to have a blue light on them, but really, those are safety vehicles, and they’re out on the roads doing that kind of work. And it protects both our crews that are operating those and motorists,” Matijevich said.
The City of Sparks proposed that idea.
Other than these goals, Washoe County supports proposals that will let the county do what it sees fit to improve the community.
“What are the outcomes that we want to see in our community, whether that’s around economic development, housing, food insecurity?” Matijevich said. “So looking to see that legislation that gets passed, really allows for local decision making, and for us to determine how to solve our problems here in Washoe County, at home.”
Carson City wants to update its charter
Carson City is the only consolidated municipality in Nevada, meaning it’s both a city and a county. Because of its unique blend of jurisdictions, Carson City has to go to the Legislature every time it wants to update its city charter — a process that’s usually done through city council meetings.
Carson City’s proposed legislation would allow the Carson City mayor pro tem to immediately assume the role of mayor should there be a vacancy. This comes after the death of then-Mayor Bob Crowell in 2020.
“We were kind of left in a tight spot because our board was stuck with four members instead of five,” said Stephen Wood, Carson City’s government affairs liaison and public information officer.
The bill would allow the board of supervisors to appoint a new person as mayor pro tem. It would also eliminate the Jan. 1 deadline to redistrict wards in Carson City following the census. Wood said this would be helpful when more time is needed, such as when there were delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carson City also wants to extend the time given to the Carson City Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance after it is published in the local newspaper from 45 days to 60 days.
“Newspapers don’t circulate as much as they used to, especially in rural areas,” Wood said. “Our board only meets twice a month … so as you can imagine, in a 30- [or] 31-day period, when you only have 45 days to do all of this, and then you have the circulation deadlines, it can make it very difficult.”
Lastly, Carson City aims to further define the beginning and end of the mayor and supervisors’ terms, with the previous official ending a term the first Sunday in January at 11:59 p.m., and the newly elected official starting the first Monday at 12 a.m., so there’s always someone in power, Wood said.
Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill, who leads the Republican caucus and whose district includes Carson City, said that charter bills have his support.
“I think if the county or city is submitting a charter change bill, it shouldn’t count against them. That’s an automatic, that they should be allowed to do that, and allowed to submit other bills,” O’Neill said.
Elko County monitors issues on natural resources and rural health care workforce
Elko County chose not to submit any bill drafts this session, Elko County Manager Amanda Osborne said.
“Honestly, we don’t really have the resources. We don’t have a lobbyist,” Osborne said. “It makes sense for us to work with other counties who have those resources, and to work collaboratively.”
However, Elko County is monitoring issues relating to land and water management, and attracting qualified workers to address workforce shortages, particularly in behavioral and mental health care, as well as legal professionals for the district attorney’s office.
“One of our biggest barriers is then attracting qualified folks to our community that want to stay in our community,” Osborne said. “Rural Nevada is fairly unique. Not everybody wants to live in rural Nevada, but those who do tend to love it.”