Now, as a newspaper editor rather than a reporter, I don’t often get to partake in the sedating joy of the school board, planning commission or city council. But this week I helped out by covering part of a joint meeting between not one, not two, but four of our local entities: the Reno and Sparks city councils, Washoe County commission and Washoe County School District Board of Trustees. If one governmental body could render me unconscious, four at once might induce coma.
But this meeting was by no means a snooze fest. It was more like a Western action film in which various gangs of varmints all have grudges against each other for a bunch of reasons nobody can remember. All they know is they hate each other and want to settle the dispute with bullets. One minute, a member of the Reno gang is shooting at somebody from the Sparks gang and the next minute remembers he or she hates somebody from the Washoe gang for some odd reason and begins firing in that direction. Eventually, since nobody really knows who to shoot at, they all shoot in every direction hoping to hit a desired target.
Monday’s meeting began with a discussion about the Truckee River flood protection project, which is governed by a board with two members of the Reno and Sparks councils and two members of the county commission. This entity is having crippling disagreements over hiring a new executive director, compounded by squabbles over representation. The antagonism appears largely to be between Reno Councilman Dave Aiazzi and Sparks Councilman Ron Smith. Aiazzi wants a shorter contract for the new executive director, more money for the Virginia Street bridge reconstruction and representation on the board commensurate with each area’s flood risk. Smith says Aiazzi’s opposition is just creating a logjam to progress on the project and wants to change the voting rules so Aiazzi’s single vote can’t hold up work. Those two exchanged bullets for a while, with other folks making occasional comments to try and stop the shooting. Eventually, the chambers were empty on the topic and they agreed to reload for continued discussion another day.
The biggest underlying problem from the outset of this meeting was the “divorce” of firefighting services between Reno and Washoe County. For about a dozen years, there has been a contract under which the county paid Reno and firefighters employed by each entity would battle blazes across jurisdictional lines. By all reports the situation worked out well, but last year the Washoe commissioners decided that with dwindling revenues it would be better to try and “stand up” their own firefighting organization, separate and independent from Reno’s.
The word “divorce” in this situation is appropriate since the breakup is as affectionate as the gunfight at the OK Corral. Politicians from each side are trying to “do what’s best” for the citizenry, which can be interpreted a number of ways in this case. There is the ever-present issue of money, which neither the county nor the city has, counterbalanced by the issue of fire protection, which everybody is sensitive to right now with the big blazes of the last six months in both city and county territory. Add in the never-popular concept of layoffs (particularly unpopular when the cuts involve firefighters, police or teachers) and this situation is no-win for anybody.
What seems to worsen this predicament is no one from the Reno City Council nor the Washoe County commission wants to budge. They just keep ducking for cover, sticking their guns over their heads and firing blindly in the opposing direction. In the middle are firefighters and taxpayers dancing to and fro to dodge the bullets, all the while hoping one of them doesn’t ricochet and spark a fire.
As Monday’s meeting headed into the afternoon discussion of fire services, the Sparks City Council members decided to skip the gunfight and get out with their hides. The city manager and a few firefighting officials stayed behind to watch the action, but it seems that in this case the city’s longstanding stance on not joining forces with Reno or the county to provide essential services has helped it stay out of the melee.
I know the complex issues of local governance are made even more complex under the stress of shrinking budgets and I like to think that all elected officials really have the best interests of the public at heart. I don’t pretend to have the answers to the flood or fire issues. The whole reason I got into journalism was so I could tell the public about fights, not get into the fights myself. It is more fun to watch Commissioner David Humke make snide comments about the pointlessness of joint meetings or Sparks Councilwoman Julia Ratti try to give levelheaded advice as bullets whiz past her head. As a reporter, it is entertaining.
But as a resident it is disheartening to think that a fire might break out or flood occur in the midst of a bunch of quarreling over how to handle such disasters. Various residents got up and spoke before the joint meeting Monday to express this very sentiment. Their words were soon forgotten, however, as the meeting and the bickering began. I just hope the political shootout can end before an innocent bystander gets hurt.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to find someplace new to take a nap.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.