Ballot Question Asks Reno Voters' Opinion On Council Election System

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There are both state and local questions on this year's ballot. One concerns Reno voters only and it asks a question we've heard before and will likely hear again.

It concerns how we elect our city government.

Presently the city council consists of one at-large councilman representing the entire city, a mayor and five council members, each representing a geographical section of the city--a ward,

But those five council members aren't really ultimately elected from the wards. They have to run from those areas in the primary, but when it comes to the general election, they run city-wide and everybody gets to vote for them.

The argument for the current system, outlined in the ballot explanation is that it leads to a council responsible to the city as a whole, answerable to all residents.

It gives, the argument goes, every citizen a voice with every council member.

Those opposed argue that's like saying allowing Las Vegas voters to vote on Washoe County's state legislators or having other states vote on our senators and congressmen would lead to better government for all.

TMCC Political Scientist Fred Lokken says our current arrangement has been more common in faster growing communities in the West.

"Those states that have stable populations tend to have much more democracy. They have larger councils in terms of the number of representatives based on a ward system," he says

The current system, he and other argue, leads to councils beholden to the moneyed interests that make city wide campaigns possible,

"It dilutes the impact of the ward," he says. "The individual will profess to represent the ward, but has been elected city wide and takes on a false set of city wide responsibilities. It's an entirely different philosophy.

And, he argues, it makes it difficult for the average person to run.

"Frankly there are those who are cynical enough to suggest that it's on purpose designed to make it very expensive for a lot of people to even consider seeking public office."

Still, the current system has its advocates. When Senator Sheila Leslie sponsored a bill changing the process to a ward system in the four Nevada cities that still have it, Reno Councilwoman Jessice Sferrazza argued that it would disenfranchise voters, leavng them unable to vote on every council member who could make land use decisions that affect them.

Reno's lobbyist argued that Leslie's bill which would cause confusion by eliminating the at-large seat in favor of a six member council.

That argument was cited by the governor who vetoed the bill after it passed the legislature with bipartisan support.

The present council did, however, pick up one of Leslie's suggestions--a public vote.

Leslie worries however, that the wording of the question--a yes vote is in favor of the current setup, a no vote endorses a change to a ward system--will confuse voters.

So, no matter what the outcome, she says, if reelected, she will press the issue during the next session once again.