Reno Posts Its State Law Violation
Complying with mandatory instructions from the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, next week’s agenda includes an item noting the Reno City Council’s Open Meeting violation committed last July during a public hearing on a code change benefiting the University of Nevada.
- What: Reno Council Meeting, Agenda Item D.1
- Where: Teleconference Meeting at www.Reno.gov
- When: Starting at 10 a.m. Wednesday, January 13
In its December ruling the AG’s office found the Reno City Council in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law, following an investigation into a complaint filed by Scenic Nevada after a board member witnessed the council shut out the community from live public comment but allowed Heidi Gansert, then a UNR official, to speak on the Zoom telecast.
To leave a voicemail for council, call (775) 393-4499 by 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, or fill out an online Public Comment Form (Reno.gov/PublicComment), or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To view the meeting virtually pre-register using the following link: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_4s1fSrsGQZaiReU00IWXkw
The Violation and the AG’s Opinion
The council was instructed by the AG’s office to “acknowledge the findings of fact and conclusions of law.” But it’s not certain what the discussion, if any, will cover on Wednesday or what it will accomplish.
The remedy we sought in our complaint asked the AG to call for a new public hearing – a do over – on the code change. But, instead, the AG’s office said that for violating the “clear and complete standard” the council is required to include an item acknowledging the AG’s opinion along with attaching the written ruling on its next agenda. See the AG’s Ruling
The AG’s office agreed that the Open Meeting law had been violated but not for barring live public comments. It said the city council had met public comment requirements, but the agenda item didn’t reflect the topic to be discussed.
Last July’s agenda item was described as a skyway text amendment and made no mention of UNR’s skyway project. The council discussed both because UNR’s skyway project was the reason for the code change. Under the Open Meeting Law, agendas must consist of “a clear and complete” statement of the topics scheduled, the AG’s Office said.
“By straying away from a discussion focused on the proposed text amendment and by allowing Ms. Gansert to address the Council regarding details of the specific UNR skyway project, the Council violated the OML’s clear and complete standard,” the ruling said.
City Code Changed for No Reason
UNR’s 245-foot-long skyway was eventually approved at a meeting in August. A skyway is a pedestrian bridge over a public roadway.
This one (left) will be located near the original entrance to campus on the south end, taking out three tall trees and ruining forever an undisturbed greenbelt that fronts majestic Morrill Hall, built in 1886; a scenic view that has stood for more than a century.
The council changed city code so that UNR could bypass a mandatory review of its skyway project before a citizen’s panel of design experts.
Ms. Gansert at the time said delays caused by waiting for that review allegedly would cost the university an additional $1.3 million to build the project and, therefore, the council needed to adopt the code change. The skyway would provide handicap access to campus and start on the fourth floor of a proposed garage located at Ninth and Lake streets, cross over Ninth and then head up a hill towards Morrill Hall.
Construction was set to begin last fall. Ironically, construction of the garage and skyway was put on hold until spring 2021, making the code change unnecessary, and worse, letting UNR escape design review for no reason. Photo below taken 12/30/20 and shows the vacant lot meant for the parking garage.
Vice mayor Devon Reese, who chaired the Zoom meeting last July, opened the public hearing calling on Councilmember Naomi Jardon, who asked, “is there anyone from UNR available?” Ms. Gansert was announced, and then appeared on the Zoom screen to answer Ms. Jardon’s question. Keep in mind that the public hearing topic was a text amendment, not UNR’s skyway project. And there was no chance for the public to respond.
“Can you tell me a little bit about the contractor, the architect, the need for the ADA compliance, who would benefit?” she asked. Gansert said the skyway would serve over 600 disabled students and faculty.
Council Allows Only One Person to Comment
We think Ms. Jardon hijacked the public process to advance UNR’s objectives. Although 47 people, some representing other groups, wrote to oppose the code change, no one including Scenic Nevada could make a live public comment on the text amendment, except Ms. Gansert. During the hearing, someone let Ms. Gansert into the Zoom meeting, while the public was kept out. Neither Vice Mayor Reese nor the city attorney present at the hearing tried to correct the situation.
The text amendment process was initiated by Ms. Jardon last April to streamline approvals for UNR. But Councilmember Naomi Duerr pointed out that changing the code took longer than convening the panel and that getting a hearing from design professionals would only make UNR’s skyway project better.
Our Complaint Disparaged and Split Council Moves Forward
Despite our pending Open Meeting Law complaint and community opposition, the Reno City Council August 12 approved – by a slim majority – the university’s skyway project and the code change that made it possible for officials to skip the design review.
Mayor Hillary Schieve and Council Members Jenny Brekhus and Naomi Duerr in August opposed both the code change and the project. “It gets to the (Open Meeting) complaint,” Ms. Brekhus said. “No one got to talk except one person.”
Assistant City Attorney Jonathan Shipman, at the time, said that based on his review of Scenic Nevada’s complaint there was no violation.
Mr. Reese who voted for both the code change and the skyway said Scenic Nevada’s complaint was a “red herring,” meant to stall the process. “Allowing that in the toolbox to void legitimate government action of this body should not be countenanced in any way,” he said. Mr. Reese didn’t indicate when, if ever, an Open Meeting Law complaint by a member of the public concerning public business should be tolerated.
Scenic Nevada agreed with many other members in the community who said that getting a technical review by design professionals would only make UNR’s skyway project better and possibly help protect the cherished scenic beauty and character of UNR’s original entrance to campus.