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Newsmakers of the year: 2021

By Bob Conrad

We’re wrapping up 2021 in a beautiful little bow. Our countdown to 2022 featured our top images, the communicator of the year, the top five reader opinions and now the top newsmakers of 2021. We conclude tomorrow with our top 10 stories of 2021.

Today we recognize newsmakers in 2021 – newsmakers being the groups and issues that continued to generate headlines for the past 12 months. We chose three (but probably could’ve easily had a half dozen appear here): striking bus workers, the school board and advocates for the homeless.

Strike three!

Three strikes occurred in 2021, and then the Teamsters went back to work.

This story actually began in 2020 when Teamster Local 533 started sounding the alarm about what they said were lack of COVID-safety protocols on buses. They continue to blame RTC Washoe’s choice of Keolis North America for the protracted kerfuffle that led to three worker walkouts.

It’s clear the two groups will never see eye-to-eye. Every little thing Keolis representatives allegedly said or did was perceived as a world-ending slight against the union workers. We aren’t convinced.

The Teamsters, however, ratcheted up their stance in ways unmatched by the multinational conglomerate – in short, they out-messaged Keolis, and they successfully used their bombast to keep their demands in headlines.

The sad part: It was the hapless riders who suffered the most. We witnessed firsthand the rage induced in riders when the third strike was announced at the Fourth Street Station.

Anyone who has had to rely upon public transportation in the area knows that even with regular service, getting from point A to B in this area is not a delightful way to spend one’s day.

We’ll hope to not again have to write about the Keolis-Teamsters battle now that the collective bargaining agreement was finally negotiated. Fingers crossed.

The story highlighted the fragility of public transit in Washoe County, particularly for those who have to use public transportation. With any luck something will be done about it, something beyond increasing driver wages.

The school board: yikes

EDITORIAL MEME by Darren Archambault. Darren is a graphic designer, meme artist, musician and political activist. When he is not doing freelance design or music, he is creating political editorial style memes, and co-running Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid.
EDITORIAL MEME by Darren Archambault. Darren is a graphic designer, meme artist, musician and political activist. When he is not doing freelance design or music, he is creating political editorial style memes, and co-running Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid.

Big drama, little education.

That could be the Washoe County School Board’s tagline entering 2022. Three noted departures on the board marked trustee news, and only one of those resignations escaped enduring drama plaguing the Washoe County School District.

Public education in Washoe County, a noble calling, has been reduced to a political battleground by nutters crying foul at fabricated controversies – the Trumpy CRT boogeyman foisted inaccurately upon WCSD, as one example – and, unfortunately, some very real ones.

Trustee Kurt Thigpen’s departure made national headlines after he penned an incredibly thoughtful opinion column on the threats and antagonism he received for being an openly gay trustee.

Trustee Jacquelyn Calvert’s resignation, nearly two years too late, further revealed the school district’s inability to focus its resources on students but rather on cleaning up chronically created messes.

It took not one but two investigations to determine what exactly happened when Calvert moved from the district she was elected to represent. Another opportunity to rise to the occasion was instead marred by blatant missteps – for example, the hired attorney not being hired to actually interview Calvert as part of the investigation.

The Calvert mess was confounded by the attempt to censure a trustee for reasons of which are still clear as mud.

It was Jeff Church and his entourage who successfully raised the issue of Calvert’s address change. They also fended off the board’s attempt to censure Church while emboldening the very narratives the district has been trying to rightfully counteract.

Board President Angie Taylor led the charge against Church for what was ultimately addressed by hiring yet another firm to help the board do its business. (Imagine a world where students and teachers could easily get tens of thousands of dollars on a whim to help them in times of need.) The whole thing was bizarre.  

We hope the three new board members, each of whom appear solid, will help steer the district toward what matters in 2022: educating students, and not just talking about educating students.

Homeless advocates beat City Hall

EDITORIAL MEME by Darren Archambault. Darren is a graphic designer, meme artist, musician and political activist. When he is not doing freelance design or music, he is creating political editorial style memes, and co-running Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid.
EDITORIAL MEME by Darren Archambault.

The City of Reno was remarkably tone deaf and outwardly hostile in its responses to homeless advocates in 2021. And the years prior. So we’re not hopeful there will be a turnaround next year.

To recap: Massive homeless encampments had gotten incredibly out of hand. Garbage, drugs, theft, murder – they were a disaster and probably should’ve been razed a long time ago.

Better yet: They should have never been allowed to build up in the first place. But using federal CARES Act dollars allowed local jurisdictions to construct the massive Nevada Cares Campus and, thus, get the unsheltered into the shelter.

It never quite works out that easily, but that’s essentially what the city was aiming to do. In order for camping on public property to be a crime, there needs to be a place for those living without shelter to go, basically.

The multimillion dollar problem, however, is the campus was essentially full before it even opened. That puts federal court precedent at top of mind when telling the unsheltered they can’t camp on public and private property, which they continue to do. Because the campus is often at or close to capacity. And it’s not very safe.

Advocates for the unsheltered have been sounding the alarm on these issues for at least as long as we’ve been reporting on them. While the city appears to have been doing what it believes is the right thing, given its resources and the timeline to spend federal dollars, its communications about its efforts were atrocious and laced with hostility.

Multiple visits to City Plaza last summer revealed just how much. When the advocates set up camp on the plaza’s grass area, they were clear they were protesting much of the above and were wanting to meet with city leaders. That was basically it.

They were instead repeatedly met by police who told them they could not camp there and offered them services as if they were homeless themselves. Some were, actually, but the point was thoroughly lost on police and city leaders – so lost we suspect it was bizarrely deliberate.

Watch Lily Baran spell it out during the early, early morning visit by cops to ticket the advocates. It’s unintentionally funny to the point of absurdity.

Tone-deafness at City hall reigned through the point where City Manager Doug Thornley, Mayor Hillary Schieve and Police Chief Jason Soto were subpoenaed by the ACLU of Nevada attorney hired to support the advocates in their fight against their newly acquired camping citations.

The advocates waited in court for hours for their trial after pleading not guilty to misdemeanor charges. Instead, City Attorney Karl Hall, or his minions, waited until after the trial had started to call in to say he would drop the charges against the advocates if they agreed not to sue the city at a later date.

Lily Baran at City Plaza protesting homeless camp sweeps. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno.
Lily Baran at City Plaza protesting homeless camp sweeps. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno.

Officials escaped having to answer questions under oath. The charade was a waste of time and taxpayer resources.

The very same group, comprising those living with low incomes and people of color, was further denigrated when they showed up to a planning commission meeting to give public comment. They were first told by security they could not go into council chambers. The same security guard then told them if they created a ruckus, he would call the police. 

At least five cops showed up shortly thereafter.

Rather than admit anything was amiss or out of the norm, one council member, Devon Reese, chastised the advocates for “assuming the worst.”

Who can blame them? They’ve been accused by elected officials of being part of disinformation campaigns while simultaneously being told they need to act nicer if they want to get results from people in city government. Seriously.

They had to fight camping-in-park-after-hours misdemeanor charges in court, with ACLU support just to get their message across. Then they were accosted by city security and were told to stop overreacting when they raised the issue about fair access to fundamental democratic processes.

This story will continue until city officials give everyone the same deference it gives to big-money developers and the Brian Sandovals of the community. Those people get fist bumps from city staff and effusive commentary from city council members. 

The advocates get told to eat shit, and the disparate treatment is grossly obvious.

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