Las Vegas Sun

July 23, 2014

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LAS VEGAS CITY COUNCIL:

984 times out of 1,000, they vote like a Politburo

Members: There’s nothing nefarious about unanimous votes

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Steve Marcus

From left, Las Vegas City Council members Steve Ross, Steve Wolfson, Gary Reese, Mayor Oscar Goodman, Larry Brown, Lois Tarkanian and Ricki Barlow gather to honor individuals during a meeting August 20./news

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Beyond the Sun

The Las Vegas City Council took 1,000 votes in a recent one-year period on issues vital to the city’s future and important to citizens.

The issues varied widely: whether homeowners would be allowed to add on to their properties, for example, and whether the city would pursue multimillion-dollar development deals to lure sports teams or redevelop casinos.

Yet the outcome of the voting was almost always identical, a Sun analysis has found.

With just 16 exceptions, every vote during that yearlong period was unanimous.

That means there was dissension within the seven-member council, which includes Mayor Oscar Goodman, only 1.6 percent of the time. The Sun studied the 24 twice-monthly City Council meetings from July 18, 2007, through July 2.

Top city officials noted several reasons for the seemingly constant agreement among the city’s elected legislators.

• When ward-specific issues come up — more than half the matters before the council — members usually defer to the council member representing that ward.

• By the time an issue makes it to the council — through neighborhood and Planning Commission meetings and staff reviews — most projects have been thoroughly vetted.

• About a year ago, the council changed how its members are briefed on issues coming before it. Members are now briefed two and three at a time. Under the old structure, each was briefed individually.

• Goodman, in the words of one top staffer, is a “strong mayor with a strong personality,” and inevitably, some council members follow his lead.

• Finally, there’s relatively little public dissension within the council, observers note.

Councilman Ricki Barlow, the council’s newest member, said the high level of unanimity didn’t surprise him.

“It shouldn’t be a cause for concern,” he said. “We all take ownership of our respective wards. The last thing I want to do is bring a contentious item before the council if it could’ve been worked out at a neighborhood meeting.”

In fact, there’s evidence that suggests the Las Vegas council votes together more frequently than almost any other council nationwide. According to a study published in 1999 in the journal State and Local Government Review, only 55 percent of the officials who responded to a large survey said their city councils voted unanimously more than 75 percent of the time.

The study examined 31 cities with a “council-manager” form of government, as Las Vegas has, and with populations of more than 200,000. More than 120 officials, including mayors, council members and staffers, responded to the question on unanimity.

Twenty-eight percent of the respondents said their councils voted unanimously 50 percent to 75 percent of the time. The remaining 17 percent of respondents said their councils fully agreed on less than half the votes.

The study’s author, James Svara, a public affairs professor at Arizona State University, said Las Vegas’ style of government — in which managers, not the mayor, control the day-to-day administration — promotes cohesion, cooperation and, often, unanimity.

Still, the Las Vegas numbers are on the high end of the scale, Svara said. “What’s unusual is the extent to which there is this unanimity here,” he said.

Among the 984 unanimous votes studied by the Sun were several on high-profile matters, including votes on the massive developments in Union Park; the oft-delayed agreement with an arena developer to try to lure an NBA team downtown; and a $10 million incentive agreement with a company headed by a former council member to build a senior housing project.

They also included scores of more mundane matters, from motions to remove parking along newly designated bus routes to the relaxation of restrictions on animal-drawn vehicles.

Each council meeting includes any items thrown onto “consent agendas.” These matters are thought to be sufficiently routine and noncontroversial that no individual debate and vote is necessary. The 1,000 votes studied by the Sun do not include these items.

Instead, the votes in question were among the “discussion” or “action” items and the new proposed ordinances that were discussed at each meeting. A large percentage of these votes were on the afternoon calendar, which is made up only of planning and development items.

Privately, council members have hinted that horse-trading is an expected part of their job — you vote for my project, and in return, I’ll vote for yours.

But on the record, the three council members reached for this story denied the phenomenon, saying they relied on the expertise of their colleagues regarding projects in their wards, but that votes aren’t traded. Each of six council members is elected to represent a geographically defined ward; the seventh member, Mayor Goodman, represents the entire city.

Goodman denied in an interview that horse-trading exists on the council. “There is no quid pro quo there,” he said.

Goodman said council members don’t meet as a group ahead of time because of the open meetings law, which mandates that any working meeting of more than half of the council be conducted in public. And council members don’t tell one another how they’re going to vote on issues, he said — though he and other members quickly concede they often chat with one another about certain legislation, and come away knowing, through hints small and large, how their colleagues are leaning.

Goodman said he doesn’t try to impose his will on other council members. But when asked whether he might have an added influence because of his strong personality and leadership style, he said he hoped so.

“I certainly don’t want to be a bully,” Goodman added. “And I think I’m a good listener.”

According to the city’s planning and development director, Margo Wheeler, Goodman is “very interested” in making sure council members are as well-informed as possible before they vote on an issue.

“His issue is, he wants a well-run meeting,” Wheeler said. “And that requires that the work be put in.”

Mark Vincent, the city’s longtime finance director, said the weekly council briefing meetings — in which the city manager or one of his deputies, along with top department officials, briefs groups of two or three council members on what items to expect on the council agenda — may, by their nature, lead to increased unanimity.

Agency and city managers try to impart the same consistent message to the small groups of council members, he said. But as the week progresses, the briefers are able to reshape their pitch about certain proposals based on council members’ reactions.

“It gives us a chance to fine-tune the ordinance,” Vincent said.

One obvious question arises from the large degree of unanimity on the City Council: Do council members vote their consciences?

Each council member who commented for this story said yes.

On rare occasions, debates during council meetings are full and boisterous — all the more surprising given the usual quick-and-easy passage of the overwhelming number of matters. On these occasions, it seems, conscience comes into play.

The vote in November on the controversial plan to develop an affordable housing project in Ward 1 was one instance. The debate over the Tapestry Group project took more than an hour and passions ran high, led by Ward 1 Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, who opposed the project, and several others who argued that neighborhood concerns aside, the need for such housing was great.

Several council members, including Barlow and Steve Wolfson, visited the site on their own time before they voted. Though the project eventually was withdrawn, proponents won during that meeting in a rare 4-3 showdown.

Wolfson, a criminal defense lawyer, said he believes that during his four years on the council, he’s voted in the minority more than any other council member, including several instances in which he was the lone dissenter.

He said the process works, and all the labor that’s done behind the scenes on the issues that come before the council is proof of that. He said he’s been free to vote his conscience, and that he’s never felt pressure over the years to vote a certain way.

“I’m not afraid to take an independent stance,” he said.

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