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OPINION: Brekhus, Church take their hero’s journey through the courtroom

Each day in Washoe County there is one main character. The goal for two local politicians is to always be it.
David Colborne
David Colborne

There are two pieces of advice I received more than once during my younger years: If everyone around you is a jerk, you’re the jerk. Relatedly, if everyone around you thinks you’re wrong, you may still be right — but you should check your work.

When asked if I prefer to be right or if I want to win, I’ll be the first to admit that, for good or ill, I choose “right” each and every chance I get. Consequently, I have some sympathy for the sort of personality that gets elected to a public office and, rather than working within the system they voluntarily ran to be elected into, chooses to do their job from the public comment side of the dais instead.

I ran for office as a Libertarian, after all. Twice. I get it.

This is all a rather peripatetic way of saying there are several fantastic reasons why I’m a freelance opinion columnist and not, hypothetically speaking, a term-limited member of the Reno City Council or a trustee for the Washoe County School District. If elected to something, I’d likely think it was the height of hilarity to take the organization I was elected to serve to court, too.

I say “too” because, as luck in Washoe County would have it, there are two elected officials in my backyard who are currently filing lawsuits against the bodies they were elected to serve. Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus is in the middle of a lawsuit against the City of Reno. Meanwhile, the Washoe County School Board just voted 6-0 to budget $500,000 to hire outside legal counsel to defend the district against lawsuits being brought by the seventh trustee of the board, Jeff Church.

If you’re the sort of person who thinks that the entire point of having elected officials is so they can govern the bodies they’re elected to serve using the levers of power prepared for their positions — if, in fact, you think any unelected yahoo can file a lawsuit against a random governmental body whenever they can rub enough nickels together for heat to pay for an attorney — well, you are certainly a sort of person.

A prudent sort of person, perhaps. I bet you get along well with others.

The rest of us, meanwhile, are all temporarily embarrassed fictional senators in the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington mold, at least in our minds. We’re all incorruptible, indefatigable, inexhaustible and a thousand other in adjectives — however many it takes for us all to be the singular heroes of our story. Others may live peacefully in their valleys, but we few, we irascible few, we band of martyrs, we will die on our hills.

Look on my works, ye constituents, and despair!

We have, as the youths say nowadays, a terminal case of main character syndrome. We are the lone protagonists of myth and literature and legend — of fiction, in other words, where people don’t have to count votes, convince others of the rightness of their causes or discover, on occasion, that they’re wrong about something.

Take, for example, Jenny Brekhus (please!). Here’s a councilwoman who has been told by multiple city managers to stop abusing and harassing city staff. When City Manager Doug Thornley announced that her access to the staff he was hired by the city to manage would consequently be limited, how did Brekhus respond?

Did she work within the confines of the council-manager form of government the City of Reno operates under? Did she convince a majority of her colleagues to fire the city manager for his impertinent refusal to allow her access to the staff she and her colleagues ostensibly assign budget and policy over?

Please. Since Thornley was hired, Brekhus has never had the votes for any of that. She has, in fact, rarely had votes in the plural in her support. For example, her vote was the only vote against Thornley’s hiring in 2020. 

Consequently, in the face of a 2,200-page report detailing how much stress and angst she put staff through (bureaucratically speaking, this is a five-alarm cry for help), a city manager who demanded she harass him and him alone if she absolutely must harass someone, and a total lack of support from her colleagues, she did the only thing she could do.

Look in a mirror? Experience a moment of emotional self-awareness? Realize that it takes an impressive amount of anger and frustration to convince people to write thousands of pages about how much of a pain in the rear you are to deal with? Try to collaborate with her colleagues and convince them to come around to her point of view?

Of course not. Brekhus is on a hero’s journey. She’s not out of order — the whole freaking system is out of order. She’s perpetually wronged but never wrong. 

She went to court to get her way instead.

Joining her in spirit, if not in suit, is Jeff Church. Before Church first ran for school board trustee in 2018, he was a frequent and litigious critic of the school district. Using his personal blog and the state’s court system, he ranted against how, in his eyes, the district spent too much money, hired bad superintendents (with the benefit of hindsight, he wasn’t wrong — after an expensive lawsuit, the district fired then-superintendent Traci Davis in 2020), and built too many gender-neutral bathrooms.

No, really, gender-neutral bathrooms was one of his first campaign issues. It wasn’t a winning one, however — he lost handily to a food server who later resigned after moving out of the district.

In 2020, however, he ran for a different school board seat. This time, he got a little lucky. His opponent, an incumbent who polled substantially ahead of him in the primary election, resigned following an unspeakably messy and public divorce. Church won handily.

As an elected trustee, Church could have developed collaborative relationships with his fellow colleagues and the staff they mutually governed. Instead, he quickly fell back on familiar patterns. 

Since his election, according to district legal staff, Church has been directly involved with four open meeting law complaints and two lawsuits against the district he ostensibly serves and expressly supported dozens of others. He also found the time to file five additional lawsuits against various other local governmental entities — they were all dismissed. Additionally, he was nearly censured for possible board policy violations and accused of sexual harassment.

In 2021, he used his personal blog to accuse the district of “indoctrinating” students “with racist, false, and historically-distorted curriculum that is anti-white, anti-law enforcement and anti-American.” This combative approach unsurprisingly made him quite popular among the protestors speaking during public comment. It also made him several enemies among the trustees and staff he actually needed support from if he wanted any of his preferred policies to become a reality.

Even before Church first ran for office, he struggled to play nicely with others. In his suit against a 2016 sales tax increase, the Supreme Court’s decision notes that he was part of a two-person committee responsible for writing a rebuttal argument against the measure. Did he use his position on that committee to reach common ground with a political ally so they could craft a unified rebuttal to a measure they jointly despised? Absolutely not — consequently, an argument against WC-1 in 2016 wasn’t presented to the voters on their ballots, the measure passed and sales taxes increased by 0.54 percent in Washoe County to fund additional school construction.

You might be wondering why a board trustee would rely upon open meeting law, litigation and spirited writing — the only tools available to those of us who aren’t given access to levers of political power — when they have so many other tools at their disposal.

In Church’s case, the answer is simple. He, like Brekhus and so many others, believes he’s on a hero’s journey. At the end of his, he likely hopes, he’ll prove that he’s not just smart enough to be right — he’ll prove he’s the only one smart enough to be as right as he is for the rightest reasons. If trustees and staff actually started agreeing with him, his vast intelligence would look less unique.

Worse yet, if he actually convinced the board to adopt his preferred policies, he’d actually be held accountable for the practical consequences of his obnoxious positions. Certainly can’t have a messy thing like material consequences tarnishing his self-image.

In fiction, after the hero’s journey ends and all obstacles in their path are cleared, the protagonist lives forevermore with the spoils of their victory and rests comfortably with the satisfaction of a job well done. In reality, however, the story doesn't end after the dramatic climax, most people don’t appreciate being treated as obstacles and the hero’s journey ends as all our journeys inevitably do — in death.

Here’s to two local heroes. May their journey be swift and the passing of their political careers serve as a blessing.

David Colborne ran for public office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Bluesky, on Threads @davidcolbornenv or email him at [email protected]


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