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April 20, 2014

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ANSWERS: CLARK COUNTY:

You don’t have to come in first to win

Lobbyist beats out rivals to represent county despite low staff ratings

How good is Dan Hart, the lobbyist Clark County commissioners picked last week?

Pretty good, considering the feat he managed to pull off Tuesday when commissioners selected him to represent the county in Carson City during the 2009 legislative session.

Here’s what made it impressive. Although you wouldn’t know by listening to the commissioners’ public discussion on the matter, county staff had analyzed proposals submitted by Hart and four other lobbying firms. Hart ranked at or near the bottom of the pack. At the top of the list was Ferrari Smith Public Affairs, which includes lobbying duo Chris Ferrari and Patrick Smith.

Who are all these people?

Most have past connections to county officials. In fact, the scramble to win the contract is in many ways a study of Nevada’s small-town political atmosphere.

Hart is a political consultant whose clients have included Commissioners Rory Reid and Chip Maxfield. He also lobbies for the state teachers union.

Smith used to work for County Manager Virginia Valentine and Commissioner Lawrence Weekly as an in-house lobbyist for Las Vegas.

Valentine was Las Vegas city manager at the time and Weekly was a city councilman.

A third firm, Sagebrush Nevada Group, included Steve Redlinger, who has worked on the campaigns of Commissioners Tom Collins and Chris Giunchigliani.

So how did Hart get the contract?

The county requested proposals from lobbyists in January. The original plan was for a committee of county staffers to evaluate the proposals, rate them and make a recommendation to commissioners, according to sources familiar with the process. After interviewing each firm, the staff ranked Hart dead last.

(The county wouldn’t release the proposals submitted by the lobbyists, or how each one scored, citing an exception to Nevada’s open record law).

The process wrapped up last month and the staff was ready to recommend a contract with Ferrari Smith, sources said. But then the process was changed. Instead of staff’s recommending a contract, all five lobbying firms would be listed and commissioners would choose one.

Why was the process changed?

After staff briefed commissioners on their recommendation, it became clear that different commissioners wanted different things. Giunchigliani and Collins thought the county staff and commissioners could do the lobbying and that, if the county hired a lobbyist, it should wait until closer to the legislative session when it would be clearer what kind of expertise would be needed.

Maxfield and Reid, meanwhile, wanted to go with the man whose political work they knew.

When staff told Reid about their intended recommendation, he asked a simple question that left the door open for Hart — whether Ferrari Smith was the only firm with which staff was comfortable.

“I have a lot of respect for every single one of the firms that responded to our request for a proposal,” Reid said. “I thought that staff’s desire to narrow in on one firm over all the others before we had an opportunity to discuss it was a mistake. I expressed that to the staff and my impression was that they agreed.”

I bet they did. So what happened at the meeting?

Maxfield opened the discussion by immediately nominating Hart. Collins and Giunchigliani laid out their positions. Commissioner Bruce Woodbury suggested the county might want to hire more than one firm.

Then Reid praised Hart’s “gravitas” and disclosed that Hart ran his last campaign. At that point, Maxfield disclosed the same.

The discussion ended with Collins restating his position and saying he didn’t have much confidence in the process. A rare 4-3 vote settled the matter, with Reid, Maxfield, Woodbury and Susan Brager voting in favor of Hart.

Will Hart’s skill at lobbying for this contract transfer to Carson City?

That’s an important question because the county is going into the legislative session with a target on its back.

Republican leaders, namely Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio and Gov. Jim Gibbons, have expressed an interest in shifting property tax revenue from local governments to the state.

Hart is known primarily as a Democratic consultant, so it will be interesting to see whether he can influence what is likely to be a Republican-led push to raid the county’s coffers.

Hart also might have some work to do to ensure that the county has a united front going into the session. Things can get ugly for a lobbyist if county staff isn’t behind him.

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