North Las Vegas council votes to keep Culinary Union rent control measure off ballot
In a 4-1 vote, North Las Vegas City Council members upheld a decision from the city clerk’s office blocking a historic, union-backed rent control ballot initiative from moving forward.
After hours of testimony and presentations from city attorneys, real estate agents and Culinary Union officials at a council meeting Tuesday evening, Mayor John Lee led the motion to approve the city clerk’s determination that the measure did not qualify for the ballot.
The vote, with only Councilman Richard Cherchio opposed, upheld the clerk’s decision that the ballot initiative had insufficient signatures in support, in addition to textual differences between the submitted petition and the circulated petition and font style differences between the two documents, thereby disqualifying it from the November ballot.
“Everything that was spoken today looks like it’s going to be interpreted in court,” Lee said. “I can’t interpret state law and I do believe that this needs to be somewhat adjudicated.”
Shortly after the meeting, the Culinary Union vowed to challenge the decision to disqualify the ballot initiative in court. In a statement, union leaders wrote they would file a lawsuit against the city in district court and, if necessary, take the issue up to the Nevada Supreme Court.
“The actions of the North Las Vegas City Council today is a clear example of how the current leadership has failed to respond to the urgent crisis North Las Vegas residents are facing,” wrote Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union. “Voters, not politicians, should decide on Neighborhood Stability and the only way that can happen is if the measure is on the ballot on November 8, 2022.”
The rent control proposal the union is pushing would tie maximum rent increases to North Las Vegas’ Consumer Price Index (CPI), stipulating that rent hikes could not exceed 5 percent year over year.
Though no rent control laws are in effect in Nevada, an April Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll indicated that 65 percent of state residents from across the political spectrum support enacting rent control policies or limiting the amount a landlord can demand when leasing a home or renewing a lease. Earlier this year, candidates for North Las Vegas mayor also agreed that if elected, they would enact a policy to stabilize rental fees.
Which election to use?
The contention over the ballot initiative centered around the question: Which election should be the basis for the voter totals used to calculate the needed number of signatures to qualify a citywide ballot measure?
Officials with the city said state statute holds that petitioners must gather signatures greater than or equal to 15 percent of voters in the last city election. They said petitioners did not submit the 3,396 signatures gathered for the ballot initiative until June 30, 2022, after the statewide primary election. Therefore, the most recent election turnout should be used to determine the number of necessary signatures.
Based on that metric, 15 percent of the 26,448 voters who cast a ballot in the city’s June 14 primary would be 3,968 signatures, more than the 2,679 valid signatures the union submitted — with much fanfare — to qualify the measure.
“If we used the 2019 election, which we would have, until the 2022 election occurred, they would have enough [signatures],” an attorney representing the city of North Las Vegas said. “The committee’s delay doomed the initiative petition.”
But the Culinary Union argued that the Nevada Constitution maintains that the number of signatures required for an initiative petition is “equal to 15 percent or more of the voters who voted at the last preceding general county or municipal election.”
Therefore, the number of necessary signatures to qualify the ballot measure should be 476, or 15 percent of the 3,169 ballots cast during the 2019 municipal general election — a threshold much lower than the 2,679 valid signatures the union gathered.
The Culinary Union’s attorney said the city’s interpretation would create an “unrealistically small window” for those who were proposing initiatives to get it on the ballot.
“Signed initiative petitions have to be in 130 days before the general election,” he said. “So if you use the primary election, those who want to get measures on the ballot are in the dark about how many signatures they need, until a week before they have to turn in their petitions.”
When city council members pressed the Culinary Union about why they hadn’t brought the rent control ballot initiative sooner, Pappageorge said the union was still rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic.
“We spent a lot of time … working to protect our members for the last two, two and a half years. We've been a little busy doing that,” Pappageorge said.
North Las Vegas residents hope for relief
Culinary Union members, real estate agents, landlords, renters and other citizens of North Las Vegas packed the city council’s chamber for Wednesday’s meeting.
One commenter, Anthony Lambert, said he was disappointed that council members allowed a real estate lawyer to make an argument against the petition before the Culinary Union, who initiated the ballot measure, and that they decided to view the law through their charter rather than using the state constitution.
Lambert, a member of the Democratic Socialists of Las Vegas, said that although he is a homeowner, he fears for the rest of the community because of escalating rents. He said his father was pushed out of his home on a rapid timeline after his landlord raised his rent by $600.
“They simply wanted to move on and use the property for something different,” Lambert said. “They said, well, we want you out sooner so we're gonna raise your rent that way you have to leave in the time we want.”
Bob Gronauer, an attorney representing multi-family housing builders, said the reason that landlords can raise rents is because there is a housing shortage. He argued that the real problem is the bureaucracy surrounding the permitting process and the complications that come with all the paperwork, approvals and fees.
“If you can't get the product out, it's a basic business equation,” Gronauer said. “When there's a lot of demand and no supply, the prices are going to go up.”
Gronauer said that even a temporary rent cap would cause developers to pull back because of the possibility of being financially stifled. He said instead of an ordinance for rent control, officials should address escalating rents by allowing multifamily developers to pull permits today and start building.
“The idea of controlling rent and not letting the market control it, limits the investment availability that you can make within the city itself,” he said.
But Kubura Johnson said that after investing in the community as a hospitality worker, voter and engaged citizen, she is not feeling supported by leaders. Her rent increased by $400 in January, giving her no option but to move.
A mother of five, Johnson said that while she does not live in North Las Vegas, she wanted the measure to pass and eventually be taken up by surrounding cities.
“I had hope that North Las Vegas would set the precedent, would set the bar for everyone else to look at and be that beacon to look up to,” she said. “But I guess that expectation was too high.”
Johnson, 37, spoke in public comment after Lee suggested only people as intelligent as lawyers should share testimony, and despite a veiled threat from Lee that public comment would be used in any litigation surrounding the ballot initiative.
“Yes, I am intelligent, enough to keep my comments to the city clerk certificate," she said during public comment. "But I will be back up here because I am passionate about how it affects me and my family as well."
Johnson told The Nevada Independent in an interview after the hearing that she would not let Lee’s words stop her and doesn’t have to be educated to speak about her life experience. Even with new supply, she said it will be difficult for residents to afford the new housing, which is often built with upgrades and wealthier families in mind.
“We're talking about for-profit and things like that,” Johnson said. “I think the focus should be on the families and the communities that work and live here, and invest here. I'm just so tired of the politics as usual.”
Updated at 10:25 p.m. on 8/3/22 to add further comments from meeting and background on ballot measure.
Updated at 7:50 a.m. on 8/4/22 to correct the spelling of Kubura Johnson's name.