After questioning the actions of a fellow board member, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority on Wednesday updated a policy clarifying how such officials communicate with the news media.
The controversy surrounded a letter TMWA board member Jenny Brekhus, a Reno councilwoman, wrote in early December to TMWA general counsel Michael Pagni about what she considered a conflict of interest. She also shared it with the news media without knowledge of the board.
StoneGate Reno, a planned residential development in the Cold Springs area, is one of Pagni’s clients. Brekhus’ letter asked him to withdraw as counsel for either TMWA or StoneGate.
A partner with McDonald Carano, Pagni focuses his practice on real estate and water law, corporate and transactional law, administrative law and government relations, according to the firm’s website. Pagnialso serves as outside counsel to several area public agencies.
TMWA board members said the letter was perceived by some as an official board position instead of being Brekhus’ personal views.
Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung told Brekhus her letter should’ve been shared with TMWA general manager Mark Foree or brought to the board.
“But instead, you ambushed Mr. Pagni through the press and released it that way,” said Hartung, TMWA board chairman. “I had a lot of people say to me that they thought this was an action of the TMWA board, not just you. If we have an issue with a contractor, regardless of what capacity they serve this board and organization, it is the purview of this board to determine whether there’s any type of a conflict.
“To immediately take that to the press, I just think was improper and I don’t feel it served this board well.”
TMWA’s policy states that board members with concerns about staff members “should” speak with the general manager.
Language added on Wednesday concerning board member and media communications was as follows: “Board members speaking to the media will clearly indicate whether comments that they are expressing are the official position of the TMWA board of directors or represent their own personal views.”
Sparks Councilman Kristopher Dahir said he didn’t have a problem with Brekhus writing the letter but didn’t like how she went about it.
“It is the representation of what voice is being said,” Dahir said. “How things can be represented…it can sound like it’s coming from me or it could be represented as being from multiple people to give strength to a conversation that should not have had that strength.”
Brekhus said she didn’t see much in TMWA’s policy that would’ve prevented her from doing exactly what she’d already done. She also pointed out there being compelled speech versus restrictions on speech.
“I think we have to be very careful,” she said. “If some of us don’t want that, or want to come to a board that has some rules that trespass over other rights, then I think we have a problem.”
Brekhus also said she thought the policy was stifling for the media.
“It seems to be a way to restrict or chill their access to public representatives,” Brekhus said.
Because Brekhus’ letter was directed at Pagni, TMWA engaged attorney Gordon DePaoli to assist with drafting policy language.
DePaoli told the board there are no penalties associated with not following policy and the language doesn’t infringe on First Amendment rights.
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.