It rarely pays to wax nostalgic about the issues, events and characters at Las Vegas City Hall.
Scratch the surface of even the most benign proposal before the City Council, and you’re likely to find a long shadow of influence and a special interest. That doesn’t necessarily make the board unique, or the action scandalous -- at least not always. It’s simply the way the business of government operates.
Just when you’ve decided that an elected official, on balance, is a well-meaning soul, he winds up ensnared in a corruption sting. After cutting a deal, he makes with the tearful goodbyes -- and then returns to City Hall a year later as a glad-handing lobbyist in the system he previously soiled. That, too, is really nothing new or special about local government. Study it awhile, and you’ll be tempted to believe possessing the ability to feel shame is the only real sin around here.
The coming week marks a new chapter in Las Vegas government with the addition of three new members of the council: Brian Knudsen in Ward 1, Victoria Seaman in Ward 2 and Olivia Diaz in Ward 3. From all appearances, each brings strengths to a job that’s much more difficult than it looks.
Knudsen has more than 15 years of experience in city and state government, many years spent working with nonprofits and consulting on behalf of the College of Southern Nevada and Clark County School District as well as a master’s degree in public administration from USC. He expresses great devotion to community service and has been a vice chair of the Downtown Las Vegas Alliance. Whether that makes him a big-hearted consensus-builder or a well-connected business insider will be something worth watching.
Seaman fills the seat vacated via special election following the resignation earlier this year of hapless rookie Councilman Steven Seroka. No one who has watched Seaman campaign can doubt her energy. The question, as with all council newcomers, is whether the former Republican assemblywoman will be known more for her powerful political friendships than her independence. The Badlands Golf Course controversy at Queensridge will test her from the start.
Former Democratic Assemblywoman Diaz will represent Ward 3, one of the most economically challenged areas of the city. The daughter of immigrant parents, Diaz is an elementary school teacher who compiled an impressive list of powerful endorsements and enjoyed sweeping support from labor unions. She’ll need to keep those friends on speed dial if she’s going to carve out substantive improvements to her ward.
New members of the council are scheduled to be sworn in at the July 3 meeting.(There’s probably a “political fireworks” metaphor lurking in there somewhere.)
Knudsen and Diaz are, respectively, replacing longtime council members Lois Tarkanian and Bob Coffin. Each exits after a long career in public service.
The term-limited Tarkanian finished with 14 years at City Hall and spent much of that tenure fighting for the creation of a medical district in her ward. The woman who started public life best known as the wife of college basketball coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian showed a remarkable resiliency politically by first racking up a dozen years as as a member of the Clark County School District Board of Trustees. Upon her retirement, the local Easter Seals charity named a public service award in her honor.
Coffin was even longer in public life with 24 years in the state Senate and the past eight on the council. Coffin decided not to run for re-election, citing health reasons, but it was hard to imagine he was having any fun on the job after being targeted in multiple lawsuits associated with his opposition to the proposed condominium development at Badlands.
Which brings us to the well-worn political adage that elections have consequences. In the city, where most registered voters can’t be bothered to participate in the election process, a new era is about to begin.
Will the 2019 iteration at the city become known as Michele Fiore’s council? The fiery conservative councilwoman from Ward 6 made little secret of her disdain for City Manager Scott Adams earlier this year prior to the two-year renewal of his employment contract. She’s a big supporter of Badlands/Queensridge developer Yohan Lowie and the EHB Companies project. She’s also looking to repeal an ordinance adopted by the council on a split vote last year that effectively delayed the development.
With Fiore pressing for a hearing and possible vote on the matter in July, and three of the four council members who voted for the ordinance no longer at City Hall, expect the political honeymoon for Knudsen, Seaman and Diaz to be very brief.
As hard as it may be to imagine, the council’s turbulent recent history soon might be remembered as the good old days.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith