Sparks’ growing pains emerge as key theme in mayoral, city council races
Three Sparks City Council incumbents are facing challengers in November for a chance to shape the future of a city that started as a railroad hub but has evolved into a major Northern Nevada shopping and residential destination with its share of growing pains.
Founded in 1904 as a site for a major Southern Pacific Railroad switchyard, Sparks added 13,000 residents in the last five years and now has a population of nearly 110,000. Its tourist attractions include golf courses, outlet malls, shopping near a marina and the Legends Bay Casino — the first new casino in Northern Nevada in more than 20 years. Events such as the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off and the Lavender and Honey Festival also draw visitors.
With home prices cheaper than in neighboring Reno, Sparks is continuing to grow with new apartment complexes and plans for new city centers focused on different services each area can provide to residents. But the city council has tried to encourage building upward instead of outward as the city is increasingly running out of land.
The population growth has increased demand on Sparks’ infrastructure, but that’s not the only reason for the strategy, as was pointed out by incumbent Mayor Ed Lawson — who was appointed as mayor pro-tempore in 2018 after the death of the previous Sparks mayor Ron Smith and then sworn in as mayor in 2020. Nevada’s property tax structure doesn’t reset when an older house is sold, so new homes bring more tax revenue for local governments than older ones. This is great for development, but bad for cities that want to slow down on growth.
Lawson’s opinion that Nevada’s property tax is in desperate need of reform is a running theme for incumbents seeking re-election. Ward 2’s Dian VanderWell, who was appointed to the council in 2020 and has been a real estate agent for many years, and Charlene Bybee, a retired flight attendant for American Airlines who will be running for her third term as Ward 4’s representative, agree that something needs to change, but they said the best they can do is fight to bring the issue to the Legislature.
Lawson is facing mayoral hopeful Christine Garvey — a dental hygienist who served three terms on the Clark County School Board and ran unsuccessfully for Las Vegas City Council in 2017. Though Garvey spent the last couple of decades in Southern Nevada, she moved back to her hometown of Sparks to be closer to her family, specifically her mother.
Bybee’s challenger for the Ward 4 seat is Damon Harrell, who works as a manager at a management services provider and IT company. Ward 2 hopeful John Eastwick, who runs the Victorian Saloon near the Sparks Nugget, will face VanderWell.
Besides tax reform, city leaders must deal with strain on their stretched-thin public safety services, managing water resources with an aging wastewater treatment facility and providing new residents with recreation such as two all-abilities parks, Pah Rah Mountain Park and another that just began construction near the Sparks Marina.
The city council is made up of five members representing different geographical wards who run for staggered four-year terms, meaning only two council seats and the mayor role are up for election this year. Unlike Reno, Sparks’ mayor does not have term limits, but also can’t vote on policies. The council votes on policy proposals, then brings approved ones to the city manager for staff to implement.
While the mayor doesn’t have voting power, they can still voice their opinion in council meetings and can veto policies — a power that none of the other members have.
Here’s a closer look at the the six candidates running for the three open seats this fall:
Lawson is no stranger to Sparks City Council, serving two terms as Ward 2’s council member since he was first elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. Before Lawson’s time on the council, he was the vice president of business development for Sierra Builders of Nevada, a Northern Nevada-based construction company.
Lawson also worked for the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) based in Salt Lake City, for 15 years, working in sales and management and eventually served as a company representative while working with government officials on issues surrounding roadside billboards.
In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Lawson, who is in his early 60s, said he wants to continue as Sparks’ mayor and address the land issues the city is facing.
“We have a lot to do … we've come very close here to running out of land in the very near future, and the way our property tax system works in Nevada, we have to continually grow or you die. There's no in between,” Lawson said. “We've been working on a lands bill to move Sparks to the east to grow into the population center there and keep us on a path where we can continue to thrive as a community.”
Lawson was referring to the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act, which involves Reno, Washoe County and Sparks. The act’s goal is to prepare for development and infrastructure in an area that is surrounded by increasingly difficult-to-develop land because Reno and Sparks are nestled in a valley surrounded — like much of Nevada — by federally owned land.
Lawson has been vocal about his view on the necessity that Sparks build up rather than out. In an article published by the Reno Gazette-Journal about a year ago, Lawson was quoted comparing Sparks to San Francisco, which is unable to grow because it’s surrounded by water.
"Frankly, we have an inventory of five years of land. Once that is sold out, we become San Francisco and all this land you see surrounding us might as well be ocean,” he told the host of Nevada Newsmakers Sam Shad in an interview.
Lawson also believes that building vertically will save on services such as police and fire. According to the World Resources Institute, research shows that cities that develop outward rather than upward and population density decreases, there is an economic strain to provide services equally among neighborhoods.
In 2020, Sparks had about one officer per 1,000 residents according to the statistics compiled by the Sparks Police Department. Las Vegas had double the amount of officers per 1,000 people in the same year.
Some of Sparks’ vertical development includes the Deco, a 10-floor, 209-unit luxury apartment complex near Victorian Square. There are also plans to redevelop Oddie Boulevard, which connects east Reno and west Sparks and has a large Hispanic population.
“With the completed street that goes from Pyramid (Way) and Oddie Boulevard over to Wells (Avenue), it is a natural connection between the Hispanic population in Reno and in Sparks," Lawson told the RGJ.
While Lawson’s opponent Garvey, 60, agrees Sparks is running into infrastructure problems, she disagrees with Lawson’s solutions.
“I hear the current mayor constantly talking about building vertically and bigger expansion of our city,” Garvey said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “He talks about how by going vertical and putting 5,000 more people in downtown Sparks that we won't need any more police or fire. Well, that doesn't seem to work.”
Garvey said she is against the constant development of Sparks, though she is aware of the local government funding incentives of developing under Nevada’s current property tax structure.
“One of the things that the current mayor always talks about is the depreciation but he never talked about the value added part of that formula,” Garvey said. “I know my mother, who just paid her taxes, was commenting on how they went up. So it's not that they're not going up.”
Garvey said that she’d like to explore other options for funding the city rather than restructuring the property tax, in part because she is worried that the change would raise living costs in an already expensive housing market. She acknowledged it’s a complex issue, though.
Both candidates, though interested in improving the way Sparks is expanding infrastructure, said that there’s only so much power the council has and that the property tax structure is a state issue that will ultimately be up to the Legislature to change.
Unhappiness about how her hometown is being managed drove Garvey to enter the race. The mayoral candidate said she wants to change the way the city “chases development,” take a different approach to homelessness and improve communication between the public and council.
“This used to be a place where you could almost leave your back door open,” Garvey said. “So, until we start saying, ‘You know what, we're not going to tolerate this.’ This is the expectation we have — if you want a hand up, we're here to help you. But if you're going to victimize people and steal and use drugs, and not put the work in, then you need to find somewhere else to live.”
On the Renoites podcast, Lawson also said he would rather see people help themselves, but he emphasized collaboration with community advocates. He has also served on the Community Homelessness Advisory Board. Lawson told the RGJ that more data should be collected on the homeless population to better understand how to help.
“Part of my job is to help people who can’t help themselves, and I take that very seriously,” Lawson said on the Renoites podcast.
To read Lawson’s full interview with The Nevada Independent, click here.
To read Garvey’s full interview with The Nevada Independent, click here.
Ward 2 covers northwest Sparks, from just west of the Wildcreek Golf Course to a bit east of Wedekind Regional Park. The ward also covers part of Pyramid Lake Highway, Sparks Middle School and Alice Maxwell School.
Incumbent VanderWell, 56, was appointed as Ward 2’s council member in September 2020. Before her time on the council, VanderWell was in real estate, working in the mortgage industry for 30 years and as a real-estate agent for six. She also served on the Washoe County Planning Commission for eight years, and on the Sparks Planning Commission for almost four years.
“As far as understanding planning, as far as the high costs of rents, that is near and dear to me, because that's what I do for a living,” VanderWell said.
Despite being a real-estate agent — a group that historically has opposed property tax structure reform — VanderWell said she supports pushing legislation to reform Nevada’s property tax. (She also noted that the real-estate industry has eased up on its opposition to reform.)
As far as infrastructure, VanderWell would like to expand her ward’s roads to meet the needs of increased traffic in Sparks, starting with the widening of Pyramid Highway.
However, VanderWell’s real passion in public service is parks. Sparks has more than 16 parks with at least two playgrounds that are all accessible.
“Parks are very, very important to me,” VanderWell said.
VanderWell said that because Ward 2 and its southern neighbor, Ward 1, are the oldest wards in Sparks and most of the neighborhoods are not governed by homeowners’ associations, or HOAs, their parks “are sometimes put on the back burner.”
VanderWell would like to develop more pools, tennis courts, amphitheaters and other outdoor recreational areas if she is re-elected.
Her opponent John “Johnny” Eastwick, 42, is the owner of the Victorian Saloon, one of several bars found on Victorian Square across Interstate 80 from the Nugget Casino Resort that’s famous for its inexpensive drinks and friendly staff.
Eastwick has had a history of trouble with Sparks. In 2019, an article published in the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that the city had confiscated the Victorian Saloon’s patio furniture after Eastwick refused the city’s request he raise drink prices during events put on by the Nugget, such as the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off or the Lavender and Honey Festival. These events are held in an area covering the Victorian Saloon’s patio, which is owned by the city.
“The Nugget brings in most of the money so they do whatever the Nugget tells them to do. It’s not OK. It’s unethical. They demand we rip off the very citizens they claim to represent,” Eastwick said of the situation in his interview with the RGJ.
However, Doug Thornley, who was the city manager of Sparks at the time, but is now the city manager of Reno, said that the price hikes were requested by the Nugget. Any special events the Nugget held, the Victorian Saloon had to comply with if the bar wanted to participate.
Eastwick told The Nevada Independent in a phone interview that that episode, along with his admiration for previous longtime Ward 2 Council Member Philip Salerno, inspired him to run.
This is the busiest time of the year for him as he prepares his bar to take on patrons from the annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook Off. Eastwick said he had not yet had a chance to look deeply into the issues, but that he was interested in representing small businesses and being a voice for citizens.
“I know that it's important to take care of the big business, the Nugget and the developers. Sometimes the little guy gets looked over. And I want to be a voice for those people. That's my goal,” Eastwick said.
To read Eastwick’s full interview with The Nevada Independent, click here.
To read VanderWell’s full interview with The Nevada Independent, click here.
Ward 4 zig-zags across northeast Sparks, containing parts of Pyramid Lake Highway, Spanish Springs, Red Hawk Golf Club, and Bud Beasley School.
Incumbent Charlene Bybee, 68, was elected to represent Ward 4 on the Sparks City Council in 2014 and was re-elected in 2018, moving into the role of mayor pro tempore in 2020. A lifelong resident of Sparks and a 1976 graduate of UNR, where she was a competitive student gymnast, Bybee was an American Airlines flight attendant for 42 years before recently retiring.
Before her time on the city council, she served on various Washoe County School Board committees, the UNR Pack PAAWS Women’s Athletic Booster Board, Sparks 2040 Master Plan Steering Committee and the City of Sparks Charter Committee.
Bybee said in an interview with The Nevada Independent that Sparks needs to adjust to an increasing population and a decreased workforce.
“[Sparks] grew 19 percent In the last 10 years [according to] the census, so we really have a variety of infrastructure needs just to keep up with that growth,” Bybee said.
She said Sparks not only needs updated roads, water treatment facilities and utilities to accommodate the growth, but also “soft infrastructure” such as staffing for police, fire and other areas as various city government departments’ staff begin to retire.
Bybee would also like to reform the property tax structure, but echoed what other candidates said — that it is up to the Legislature to change.
Bybee said the city is working on better processes all the time, including innovations to track diseases through the effluent water — or sewer water that has been treated to be reused for things such as watering grass — and using effluent water for cooling the Tesla and Panasonic factories off of USA Parkway and watering the numerous golf courses in Sparks.
However, Bybee also wants to continue to improve the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility (TMWRF), which is located in Sparks, but treats water for Reno and other parts of Washoe County.
“The biggest challenge we have with all of our infrastructure, and that really will limit growth at some point, is the sewer treatment plant that we operate … all wastewater in the region goes through TMWRF,” Bybee said. “The water treatment plant is over 60 years old.”
Bybee’s challenger is Damon Harrell, 50, who works as a manager at a management services provider and IT company. Harrell said in an interview with The Nevada Independent that he was inspired to run after he heard that his son, who is a high school athlete, would be required to get the COVID vaccine before it was approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Both Harrell and his wife were vaccinated at the time, emphasizing that he is not an anti-vaxxer, but he was concerned about the consequences of the vaccine for people under 18.
Harrell said he brought the issue to a city council meeting during public comment and was disappointed by the lack of response he received from council members. (The city council, however, has no power over vaccination requirements for students, a city spokesperson confirmed. That is a decision typically left to state officials.)
“I felt very put off by the experience [I got from] the city council members — every one of them, not just my opponent, but all of them — just stared at me,” Harrell said. “I was like, well I've got to do something, anything … I’m here to try and represent myself and the people of Sparks and protect my boys and my family.”
Similar to Bybee, Harrell would like to bolster staffing in public safety, saying that adequately staffing the police department would help the community as a whole.
“Highly trained humans fail when they're tired. Exhaustion. You know, nobody can fight through it forever,” Harrell said.
Harrell joined the Citizens’ Police Advisory Board to help better his community’s police department and support his oldest son, who is Black. Through the Citizens’ Police Advisory Board, Harrell attended the Citizens’ Police Academy, a course open to the public, to learn more about the procedures and precautions police have to follow.
“I went into this like a bull in a china shop saying, ‘hey, look, we've got to be better,’” Harrell said. “And then I got to start talking to the officers in the City of Sparks. And if you've got a chance to talk to them and understand the intent they have … you start realizing that they're just really good people.”
Harrell said he was impressed with the different divisions within the police department, specifically the Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement, or HOPE, team that helps the homeless population. In February, there were 1,605 Washoe County residents without a home, but it’s unclear how many of them live in Sparks.
Harrell also said that he would like to focus on clean energy and restructuring government spending if he gets elected.
To read Bybee’s full interview with The Nevada Independent, click here.
To read Harrell’s full interview with The Nevada Independent, click here.
Correction (9/19/2022 at 4:55 p.m.): An editor's note has been added to Damon Harrell's interview transcript clarifying Dian VanderWell is a registered non-partisan. The original transcript said VanderWell was a Democrat with no clarification.