I can probably count on one hand the number of risks I have taken. The first one that comes to mind is the time I jumped out of an airplane with a big piece of nylon and an experienced risk-taker strapped to my back just in case I wasn’t able to pull the rip cord. Another time, when I was in college, I rode a friend’s motorcycle around a parking lot and nearly did some severe damage to my ability to reproduce. Fortunately, I did more damage to the bike than it did to me (drop me an e-mail if you want details on that story). A few years back I bought a house in Southern California when the market was near its peak and then sold it as the market was starting its descent into the current state of disarray. Once again, I not only came out unscathed but actually quite farther ahead than most people. Believe it or not, my house there sold, fell out of escrow and sold again while many houses in my neighborhood sat offerless. As for my love life risks, well, I’ll leave that to your imagination but they’re mistakes we’ve probably all made once or twice when passions flare.
Those exceptions aside, I avoid danger like an anorexic avoids calories. I drive ridiculously slow, I don’t do anything with my extra money except put it in a simple savings account and I stay away from fast women (OK, that last one isn’t totally true). My job has some inherent risks, but the First Amendment is a pretty good legal shield. The law doesn’t help everyone in their jobs, though, as has been illustrated to me several times by members of the Sparks City Council. Last summer, when I covered the Nevada Commission on Ethics hearing for Councilman Mike Carrigan, I learned for the first time about the Lazy 8 Casino controversy. Not only were many residents opposed but the members of the council had the unfortunate task of voting on the issue. The ethics commission ultimately admonished Carrigan for voting on the Lazy 8 hotel/casino because Carlos Vasquez, the public relations man for Lazy 8 developer Red Hawk Land Co., also worked as Carrigan’s political campaign manager. The relationship constituted as a conflict of interest that should have stopped Carrigan from voting on the Lazy 8 application, the commission said. Carrigan told everyone about the relationship, but went ahead and voted on the advice of the Sparks city attorney’s office — which the ethics commission said was bad legal advice.
This last week, Councilman Phil Salerno received word that he will have his own ethics hearing on his vote on the Lazy 8. In his case, his printing company did business with John Ascuaga’s Nugget, which has been a vocal opponent of the Lazy 8 project. The ethics complaint also asks whether Salerno should not have voted because he makes money a Lazy 8 opponent, a fact that might have influenced his vote against the hotel/casino.
The councilmen and I are in similar positions when it comes to our actions on the job. We learn the laws that govern our actions before we go to work, but sometimes we still encounter gray areas. In those cases, we trust lawyers (isn’t that an oxymoron?) to give us advice on what we should do so that we fulfill our obligations but stay within the law. For certain articles that we publish, I have to carefully ponder the implications of each word combination to make sure we don’t cross into a legal area that could get us into trouble. Fortunately, I haven’t encountered too many such situations and I can usually recognize when it might be a problem and make the appropriate edits to avoid the problem. Sometimes, though, I have to go out on that precarious limb and hope the truth prevents it from breaking.
When it came to the Lazy 8 vote, Carrigan and Salerno had advice from the city attorney’s office telling them it was OK to vote on the project despite their ties to the developer. The plethora of law degrees in the office made this a seemingly logical choice. As elected officials, the legal advice coincided with their natural inclination, which is to vote on the matter so they could represent their constituents as they saw fit. As a journalist who has been relatively untouched by pressures that haunt larger media outlets, I have not felt corporate pressure so I also feel that my ultimate job is to serve the people, albeit in a different way that is sometimes confrontational with the local politicians.
Even with the inclination to serve and with the go-ahead from the folks who went to law school, there are still times when the gut feelings need to take over. For Carrigan and Salerno, one of those times probably should have been that fateful Lazy 8 vote. Let’s face it: Conflict of interest is 99 percent perception and just 1 percent reality. Regardless of how the Nevada Commission on Ethics ruled for Carrigan or ultimately rules for Salerno, that vote was one of those times when any little gut feeling of doubt should have taken over, if for no other reason than to avoid the question.
But they were in a no-win situation. If they didn’t vote, they weren’t doing the job the people of Sparks elected them to do. By voting, they opened themselves up for attack by the vocal opponents of the project. And in a tight-knit area like this, the only way to avoid voting on an issue with a potential conflict of interest is to not run for office at all. The small-town closeness that makes this place great is a thorn in the side of anyone trying to be an impartial local legislator. But that’s the risk they have chosen and while I applaud them for their efforts, I’m glad it’s not my job.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going skydiving.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.