Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Sex, Lies, & City Hall: Local Scandal in Southern Nevada
As early voting continues in the Las Vegas Ward 6 Recall Election, lurid allegations ("Sex! Drugs! Extortion! Fraud! Harassment!") continue to fly in Henderson's Kathleen Vermillion/Steve Sisolak scandal, and North Las Vegas struggles to shed its not-far-in-the-past image of corruption, dysfunction, and failure, challenges continue to pile up for local governments in Southern Nevada. Trust in local authorities seems to continually hit rock bottom as of late, and the cities here are trying everything possible to regain that trust.
So how can they? And should we give it back to them?
Let's start in Henderson, the city where I live. Of all the cities in Southern Nevada, it's often said that Henderson is the best run of them all. And hey, who can justifiably dispute that after seeing that Henderson has found ways in the last 3 years to amicably settle contracts with city workers, keep all the city's parks and community centers open, and (again) recently rank as one of America's Safest Cities by Forbes (now up to #2!) and as one of America's 50 Best Cities by Bloomberg BusinessWeek (now at #38)? Considering all of Henderson's many accolades and glitzy awards, why does my hometown now look and feel like a politically charged remake of "sex, lies, and videotape"?
Let me try to explain. Since 2008, Vermillion's and Sisolak's relationship has been a factor in Henderson politics. Sisolak was elected County Commissioner in November 2008, and Vermillion (then known as Kathleen Boutin) was elected City Council Member in June 2009. They were to be "The Ultimate Power Couple". He was the "fiscally conservative watchdog taking on the firefighters" at the county level, while she was the beloved community leader in Henderson who was doing so much good for local teens in need. Everything seemed perfect...
But obviously behind the scenes, it wasn't. We've already been seeing the details behind the deterioration of their romantic relationship. However, that wasn't the end of it. Perhaps last year's jurisdiction battles and municipal elections were a sign of what's to come. Kathleen Vermillion voiced early support for the controversial plan to concretize part of Pittman Wash, while Steve Sisolak opposed it. And Sisolak backed the challengers to two of Vermillion's colleagues on the Henderson Council (Gerri Schroder in Ward 1, and Debra March in Ward 2) in last year's election. At one point, they were also endorsing opposing candidates in the Ward 4 election. (Vermillion endorsed Mike Mayberry early on before switching to "neutral" just before the runoff, while Sisolak endorsed Sam Bateman.) Honestly, I found it strange hearing him complain about the supposed "fiscal recklessness in Henderson" (which actually has the lowest city worker to resident ratio and the lowest property tax rate in the valley!) when his girlfriend was on the council.
But even now that Vermillion is off the council and the NPHY board, questions remain. How did Vermillion spend the money at her charity? How did Vermillion spend the city's tax dollars? Why is Clark County government now being dragged into this fiasco? Were city business and county affairs affected by Vermillion's and Sisolak's personal relationship? And perhaps most importantly, what can the City of Henderson do to ensure city government is not paralyzed by this kind of personal drama in the future?
As we had discussed last week, it's crucial for Henderson to move on from this hot mess and get back to governing. Without a doubt, the council members, and especially new Ward 3 Council Member John Marz, face a grueling challenge ahead in rebuilding trust with the community and assuring residents that the Vermillion-Sisolak scandal is one that isn't destined to be repeated in Henderson. How can they prevent this kind of personal drama from infecting all levels of local government in the future?
Of course, Henderson isn't the only city in Southern Nevada facing lurid scandal. In Las Vegas, voters are still casting ballots that may determine not only Steve Ross' political future, but also how effective issues surrounding conflict of interest will be in shaping future campaigns.
Steve Ross has repeatedly been accused of being involved in all sorts of conflict of interest and ethics violations. He obviously hasn't been a model for great public service, and many residents are honestly (and IMHO justifiably) irked by this. However, many of these same residents are also wondering why they're voting on this recall today. Why?
Enter Joe Scala. Apparently Scala is still fuming over being denied a license to keep his car dealership in Centennial Hills open, and he's blaming it on Ross. So now Ross is accusing Byron Goynes, the one candidate who qualified to run against him in this recall election, of being "a puppet for Scala"... And he's even trying to tie Goynes and Scala to Henderson's Vermillion-Sisolak scandal by pointing out the recall committee hiring the same PR strategist (Mark Fierro) who's taken on Kathleen Vermillion as a client! Oh my, and the plot thickens.
Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out the whole point of this. No, I've never really been Steve Ross' biggest fan. I still wonder why he sought to earn Homophobic-Bigot-in-Chief Richard Ziser's endorsement when he ran for Las Vegas Mayor last year, and his stunning lack of knowledge on the big issues facing our country still disgusts me. However, I still can't clearly see the reason for this recall. Has Ross committed a crime? Is he egregiously failing in his duty on the council? And have his obvious public policy shortcomings become such a matter of emergency that Las Vegas can't wait one more year to vote him out (when he will again be up for reelection in Ward 6)?
Is this a genuine effort to clean house on the Las Vegas City Council? Or is this just an angry car dealer's vendetta being carried out on the taxpayers' dime?
Well, at least Las Vegas doesn't have to worry about this. North Las Vegas was recently ranked as one of "The 10 Worst Run Cities in America". And considering the budget woes, the possibly continuing threat of state receivership and dissolution, the new city hall that many claim the city can't really afford, and the troubling thought that we may never know who really won in last year's disputed Ward 4 election, there's probably good justification for this finding.
"Nor'town" has continually tried for decades to shed its image as "the armpit of the valley". But now, Mayor Shari Buck claims all will finally be well... And that whoever disputes her sunny outlook is just out to steal North Las Vegas' land (and development potential). After all, 57% of Nor'town's land is still undeveloped. So perhaps there is some truth behind Buck's assertion that Las Vegas and Clark County are coveting Nor'town's available land?
Last June, I declared that there's something rotten in the state (really, city) of North Las Vegas. And despite (or maybe because of?) Shari Buck's efforts to turn all those frowns upside down, I still have to wonder where that stench is coming from (other than whatever's going on at that waste water treatment plant). Why is a new city hall open while parks and community centers have closed? What really needs to be done to change the city's image (other than glossing over the faults everyone else clearly notices)? And how can all that empty land be transformed into a vital part of the local economy?
Perhaps North Las Vegas' dilemma is the most basic and existential problem of them all. Really, how can North Las Vegas move forward?
Certainly this year, the bulk of the media's attention will be turned to the hot, "sexy", top-of-the-ticket elections. After all, with the G-O-TEA clowns coming to town, there will be plenty of fodder for local newscasts and national cable news shows alike. But after all the hoopla of the caucus and fighting over who really won what, these local problems will remain. And really, the government we most often deal with is the local variety. Whenever we have problems with rowdy neighbors or pesky potholes or dilapidated parks or dangerous sidewalks, we go first to city hall.
And so far in this first month of 2012, we've had plenty of food for thought as personal drama got out of hand in Henderson, a recall election unleashed plenty of chaos in Las Vegas, and still unanswered questions of the city's viability in the not-so-distant future linger in North Las Vegas. How does local government address scandal? How can local government try to prevent scandals from ruining its reputation? And how can local government heal rifts with the community after scandals come and go?
Local government theoretically should be the government that we trust the most and hesitate the least over engaging. Yet for some time, a combination of the public's misperceptions and genuine scandals has tarnished our cities' reputations and made folks ask what's really going on at city hall. Going forward, Henderson, Las Vegas, and North Las Vegas all have to face their own respective challenges in restoring trust and giving the people of Southern Nevada reason to believe that past sordid tales of corruption really are a thing of the past.