Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2014

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J. Patrick Coolican:

In some cases, voters should have the keys taken away from them

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J. Patrick Coolican

Quick: Who did you vote for in the 2010 county recorder race? How about public administrator? County treasurer?

Do you know what these elected officials do? I follow this stuff for a living, and I’ll go on record and say that before I started writing this, I didn’t know the duties of the public administrator. I’ve come to find out John J. Cahill — meet your county public administrator! — oversees the affairs of the dead who don’t have a proper estate executor. Yes, we elect someone to do this, as if any of us have any idea what it would even mean to be effective at this job.

It’s an election year, which means it’s time to make choices about the future of our community, choosing elected representatives to deliver on our collective vision. It’s also time to go into the voting booth and pretend we’re qualified to make choices we’re clearly not qualified to make about people we know nothing about.

No doubt when I argue my case that we should clear some of these positions off the ballot — especially the board of regents and judges — the public will cry with outrage that I want to take away their self-determination.

This overconfidence in our ability to elect people stems from the state’s founding, Nevada historian Michael Green told me.

“It tended to be a symptom of the frontier. There was a belief you had to be a little closer to the ground,” he said. The frontier people wanted to manage their own affairs, which apparently included choosing the state printer (thankfully, no longer an elective office).

Many political scientists take a dim view of all these elections. “It’s very hard for voters to know what they’re doing,” said Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.

We’re one of just a handful of states that elects the governing body of our higher education system. (Do you know who your regent is?) Is this wise in a state where a bit more than 20 percent of the residents have a bachelor’s degree? We wind up with a lot of people who never went to college choosing someone who will determine the direction of our colleges and universities. Am I being elitist? Yep.

The real scandal, though, is the election of judges.

There’s the knowledge issue, of course, or more pointedly, the lack of knowledge by voters: “I have a Ph.D. in political science, and I have trouble evaluating judges,” Bernstein said. I’m with him.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s “Judging the Judges,” which surveys lawyers to evaluate judges, is a useful tool but inadequate, lawyers told me.

As for quality, this isn’t to say we don’t have some good judges, but our election system no doubt scares off qualified jurists who don’t want to put up with glad-handing and fundraising.

Compare the quality of the judges on the federal bench, who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate, to our elected judges. Sorry, but it’s not even close.

More importantly, I agree with the Founding Fathers, who believed one branch of government should be shielded from the whims of capricious public opinion, that judges should make decisions based on the law and not what the polls say. Would an elected U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, have decided correctly on Brown v. Board of Education?

Finally, there’s the scandal of judges raising money from lawyers who argue cases before them.

An attorney I spoke to, who didn’t want to be named, said he has at least one conversation per day with other attorneys about the fear of retribution for not giving to incumbents, or for giving to their challengers.

“The nutburger judges act out in the craziest ways,” he said.

Overall, if the public would sit in some courtrooms for a few days, the attorney said, we’d all be struck by “the impressive lack of understanding of the law, the absence of decent courtroom demeanor and the heavy-handedness of decisionmaking.”

Great job, voters! The fault isn’t ours, however. Sometimes we all need someone to hide the keys.

A version of this column first appeared in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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  1. Let's now forget our wonderful County Recorder Fran Deane that ended up being found guilty of Three Felony counts including selling public records for thousands of dollars. http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/jan...

    She got what was coming to her though, she got five years probation and 15 charges dismissed that would have landed her in jail for 15 years.

    Her total campaign consisted of trolling AOL chat rooms to get people to vote for her and the public went for it. Cost the tax payers Hundreds of Thousands of dollars.

    Our system is broken in more then one way and it is because the majority of the public has allowed it to become this way.

  2. In some cases, news writers should have their freedom of speech rights taken away from them.

  3. What J.Patrick Coolican suggests can fairly well apply to LARGE communities. In the much smaller and rural communities, you KNOW your people because they are likely to be your neighbors or go to the same clubs or gatherings as you. I am still a registered voter in White Pine County, and tend to know the people, what their jobs and what their intentions are, and am able to vote accordingly.

    Maybe being too big, too spread out, puts good government at risk. We could also add being too busy to get involved and stay informed, or for some, not caring at all about politics, government, and voting.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  4. Chunky says:

    Frankly he'd rather have someone with common sense than a bachelors degree voting or in office. Obviously with so many of our elected officials all the way up to our current and past Presidents who have the finest eduction money or loans can buy, education isn't the total solution.

    Also, Mr. Coolican, nice interview on Face to Face last night regarding the enslaved women working as prostitutes. Aside from looking like you were on the witness stand and being grilled, you never answered the host's question as to the casino operators look the other way approach to prostitution. Did you not want to be on-camera?

    Thanks though for explaining what these various officials do and how they came to be elected positions.

    Well done!

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  5. I've got to agree with J. Patrick Coolican - as much as I try to keep up - I often have no idea which judicial candidates are best to vote for - so, I call my attorney friends and poll them for their opinions before I go vote!

    What's more disturbing is the number of citizens that don't have a clue who their State Assembly or State Senator is, or who is elected to represent them on the City Council or County Commissioner!

    Then, there's those that don't know the difference between a member of the U. S. House of Representatives and U. S. Senate - or they just blame the President for EVERYTHING that they're upset about!

    Fundamentally, what's wrong with society today - is they haven't even made an effort to meet their own neighbors - sad, Sad, SAD!

  6. In addition to "what to elected official DO?" ask "how many of them are there?" Many counties in the USA have merged the offices of elected officials such as treasurer, assessor, recorder. With Clark County having financial problems, wouldn't it make sense to combine the offices and save over $100,000 per year per office? Start with the County Recorder. There is no education or certification required to be recorder. Put that office under the Assessor. Solve two problems at once (get rid of Debbie Conway). These elected officials get by with all kinds of things. Fran Deane "got caught" probably due to emotional issues. But crafty Debbie is just as dishonest, uses her resources for personal gain, and we foot the bill for her life of luxury as county queen, I mean, recorder.

  7. Another good article. The Public Administrator is can be named as (or is default) Executor of some estates. Any body know that if you don't leave a will or living trust or have an immediate heir, the State of Nevada TAKES YOUR ESTATE FOR "EDUCATION?" Tis true. There is a particular Budget Account in the State Chart of Accounts just for these funds. And I tend to agree that this position is better filled by a qualified accountant or financial manager that is overseen by say the County Manager's staff. We've heard of various Public Administrators who have misspent estates and even heard of criminal charges. And then there is the handling of the finances for people deemed incompetent.

  8. It is the non-elected behind the scenes folk who actually control those offices that we need to get acquainted with.

  9. What, me, worry?

  10. Hey Patrick,

    435,143 Clark County voters went down the ballot in the 2010 General Elections to cast a vote for one of four candidates in the Public Administrator race. I was honored and humbled that 221,369 voted to give me a second term. I believe the number of folks who go far down the ballot to the local races might surprise you with how much and what they know in making their decision. I trust the voters.

    I campaigned everywhere in the valley and in the outlying County areas telling voters what work is performed by the Public Administrator and how it benefits them. I gave some history of the CCPA, created in 1909 when the County of Clark was formed, and told them that every County in Nevada, and counties in most western states, all have an elected officer doing PA work.

    Every year we distribute millions of dollars to heirs. I have recently found heirs across the USA, in Italy, Japan, Canada, and a small village in South Africa.

    Our purchase of services for estates helps the local economy. We employ, and pay from estate funds, local businesses to do towing, auctions, accounting and tax filings, we buy insurance, do residential repairs and refurbishing, landscaping and grounds keeping, real estate sales, and every estate that requires a petition hires an attorney. None of that work is done by County employees and none is paid for by taxpayers.

    We pay property taxes, pay utilities, pay local banks, and work hard to resolve all debts of each decedent. When decedent debts are unpaid the losses are spread across local customers here in Clark County.

    Budgets and services have been cut, as with every County department, but we are still meeting the mandates of the law in our duties. We very much like citizens to know what we do and we encourage everybody in Clark County to be kind to their family and to have a Will so we won't be needed.

    You made some good points in your article. I like voting for Judges and would never want to see them appointed. But it's unseemly for them to ask for campaign donations. Those races should be publicly funded.

    Thanks for your attention to my small office. John J Cahill, Clark County Public Administrator

  11. Sorry JP. The problem is that we have an ignorant electorate. People are more concerned with who is voted off DWS or Survivor. What I can tell you is that a Republic cannot survive with a population of ignorants. And that's exactly what we have.