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City Council members spar over City Manager’s review (updated)

By Kelsey Penrose
Published: Last Updated on

By Kelsey Penrose

Sparks flew at the Reno City Council meeting Wednesday following a review of the City Manager’s performance, after which Councilmember Jenny Brekhus came under fire for what her colleagues regarded as abusive behavior. 

During the exchange, Brekhus was accused of defamation, being a “petty tyrant” and more. Brekhus struck back by accusing the council of not taking a prior report she’d made on policy violation seriously because, she said, the mayor plays beer pong on Fridays in her office. 

During the review of City Manager Doug Thornley, most council members and staff spoke highly of his work over the past 20 months since he was first employed by the City of Reno as manager. 

A “360 degree” performance evaluation was facilitated by human resources through an anonymous survey completed by “key stakeholders.” 

Of external stakeholders, six individuals were invited to participate, and of internal stakeholders, 29 individuals were invited to participate. 

Doug Thornley

The majority of those external to the city staff rated Thornley’s performance as “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations.” In one category, two respondents marked “Interpersonal Skills/Relationships” as an area for growth. 

Of internal reviewers, the majority rated Thornley’s performance as “exceeds expectations.” 

Thornley told council that on behalf of the nearly 1,700 teammates, he was proud to state that they had accomplished much of what they had set out to accomplish when he last came before the council. 

“Whether it’s the balanced budget you were all so happy to pass just a few weeks ago, or being recognized as one of the best places to live in northern Nevada, I think we’re really hitting our stride,” he said. 

Councilmember Devon Reese read a passage from “Ted Lasso,” the popular Apple TV series, and praised Thornley and his team’s hard work that they have undertaken over the past year. 

“It is truly exceptional to be part of an organization that you are leading, and I’m thankful everyday that we chose to hire you,” said Reese.

Councilmember Naomi Duerr highlighted Thornley’s vision and leadership. 

“I think that you truly care. I think that changes everything because you care about the people here, you actually care about us, and listen to what we say,” she said.   

Brekhus accused Thornley of being “retaliatory” toward her following an incident in November 2021, which Brekhus said would be investigated. She did not elaborate further. 

Brekhus also said she believed that Thornley encouraged too much socialization in city staff. 

“He likes to be a leader, but that leadership is in the [form] of socialization, of gathering and fraternization,” she said. 

Brekhus said that one instance of “fraternization” includes a recent situation in which multiple members from the manager’s office attended a police memorial which, Brekhus said, is one example of wasted resources. 

“It’s one of our most important ceremonial events, but I don’t really expect to see six members of the management team there.” 

“I see a lot of activity that maybe in your mind is seen as culture building and togetherness, but I see it as resources not doing work,” Brekhus added. “And I don’t want to put everyone hard-driving all the time, but I see so much socialization and so much gathering that’s work hours not being done for things that aren’t of substance.” 

“No matter how educated or talented or experienced one believes themselves to be, how you treat people is ultimately what integrity is,” said Councilmember Neoma Jardon. “And you have that in spades. Some don’t, and I think it was just exhibited.”  

Attacks continue

“One member of this body is dysfunctional, unkind, indecorous, belittling and in this particular case has crossed a line.”

During a second round of comments, Brekhus continued her negative review of Thornley. 

Brekhus went on to say that she did not support Thornley’s hiring at the time because she wasn’t convinced of his “seasoning,” and stated she still wasn’t convinced. 

She said she believed Thornley was going against the code of ethics because he was involved in politics. She said he once texted her stating that because of the things she was saying on the campaign trail, he would not be providing services to her as city manager. 

“A city manager has to be apolitical,” Brekhus said. “You have to treat all members of the body equally.” 

Brekhus told Thornley he should “get a mentor” and spend time with the code of ethics. 

Following this, other council members took aim at Brekhus, condemning her behavior toward Thornley, calling her a “petty tyrant” and even implying she was “running people off” and costing the taxpayers because of it. 

“My mother always told me if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” added Mayor Hillary Schieve. “I’m having a really hard time not doing that right now. Really hard.”  

Mayor Schieve also told Brekhus that she should have recused herself from voting on the city manager’s contract due to the fact that Thornley was the previous boss of Brekhus’s husband.

“You should have disclosed that since there was a financial relationship,” Schieve said. “So when we talk about ethics, I find it hard to believe that there weren’t some preconceived thoughts or notions of Mr. Thornley, personally. You should have recused [yourself]. That would have been the ethical thing to do.” 

Brekhus’s husband, Armando Ornelas, is Community Services Director for the City of Sparks and Thornley’s role with Sparks was as Assistant City Manager. Brekhus, after the meeting, said Thornley was never Ornelas’ boss.

Neoma Jardon
Neoma Jardon

“Part of me struggles to even respond to what I see as defamatory nonsense,” said Jardon. “But part of me also has watched for years the damage to the organization and the cost to the efficiencies of the organization through the behaviors of the member from Ward 1.”

Councilmember Jardon went on to imply that Brekhus was costing taxpayers over $300,000 due to the turnover she has caused in city employees. 

Councilmember Reese addressed his second comment toward Thornley as well as all city staff, saying he will “protect them from being harassed or bullied by a petty tyrant who will run them out of the organization. One member of this body is dysfunctional, unkind, indecorous, belittling and in this particular case has crossed a line.”

Duerr used her second comment to speak about the city raccoon, and praised Thornley for the initiative. 

“The raccoon in many ways summarizes [your work],” she said. “It’s humorous, it engages with the public, [it allows us] to reach out beyond ourselves.”

Brekhus left her podium at the end of the council meeting to give public comment, during which she played a phone recording of what sounded to be Mayor Schieve. On the recording the voice is talking about playing ping pong in her office in order to break the ice with people and to make them feel more comfortable, before joking about playing beer pong on Fridays. 

Brekhus said she had been retaliated against for reporting “a very serious violation of policy,” and stated that the board didn’t take her report seriously for “certain reasons,” before playing the audio clip. 

“If we really do have Friday afternoons beer pong up on the 15th floor, then how serious by members of the body is a concern that a chief executive is drinking on the job?” asked Brekhus. 

Brewery District to get signage

Council reviewed a proposal to better market the Brewery District within the community. Projects include lamp pole banner design and production to market the district. The banners will hang across the majority of poles spanning both sides of East Fourth Street from Evans Street to Sutro Street. 

These banners will be similar to banners found within the Museum District, the Riverwalk District and the South Virginia Transit Corridor. 

William Truce of the Reno Brewery District Coalition and Black Rabbit Mead said he hoped adding the banners will help support the district’s revitalization. 

Breweries and bars hosted a Fourth Street Block Party in 2016 to encourage visitors to the area.

“The historic neighborhood is home to a growing number of creative, delicious and industrious locally-owned businesses,” Truce said in his project proposal. “Yet, many in our community are unaware of this transformation and remain timid to visit this part of Reno.” 

“You’re a true champion of this area,” Councilmember Jardon, who is also on the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) board, said. “We at the RTC can do all of the street improvements and it looks magnificent from the street level, but it really takes the people and the businesses to make it a business home and to make it vibrant.” 

Truce, who grew up in Reno, said the project was not only for the businesses within the district but Reno as a whole. 

“Reno deserves so many wonderful, cool districts, and I’m really excited to do what I can,” he said. 

Council voted to transfer $6,500 from the American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund to offset the costs associated with the project. 

Bowling Stadium agreement amended

The National Bowling Tournaments Agreement between the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA), the City of Reno, and the United States Bowling Congress (USBC) was amended to conduct national bowling tournaments within the city of Reno until 2032. The amendment includes adding six tournaments as well as updating the required facility upgrade schedule to include replacing 88 bowling lanes on the first and fourth floors by Jan. 1, 2029 and dedicate a minimum of 50% of future surcharge proceeds to the facility upgrades until the upgrades are complete. 

The National Bowling Stadium brings 30,000 visitors per year to the Reno-Sparks area which, staff argues, is vital to the region’s tourism.  

In November 2020, the City, the RSCVA and the USBC executed the third amendment to the agreement to move the 2022 Women’s Tournament to 2021, and modify the completion deadline for the refurbishment of the exterior to Feb. 1, 2023. 

The first and second amendments were executed in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

“Bowlers bring a tremendous amount of national recognition to Reno,” Councilmember Reese said. “We should absolutely extend this contract. It’s a financial no-brainer.” 

“Losing this revenue for the city would be extremely damaging,” Schieve added. “They need a marketing director specifically for this venue. The revenue is really tremendous. It brings a lot of money into this economy.” 

“It’s the right thing for Reno, it’s the right thing for the region,” said Rick Murdock of Caesars, which owns the nearby ROW casinos. 

Councilmember Brekhus asked whether or not Reno “even needs a bowling stadium here that is a single-purpose facility that does or does not deliver tourism to this area.” She added that the stadium is a “big, empty, silent block” for many months of the year that does not contribute to the revitalization of downtown. 

The amendment was accepted with Brekhus voting against. 

Funds approved for public health, housing support 

Councilmember Oscar Delgado proposed to transfer $25,000 from the general fund to the Second Baptist Community Development Corporation to offset the costs associated with “developing improved public health communication initiatives, system and clinic navigation, behavioral health services and housing support.” 

According to the project proposal, the Second Baptist County Community Development Corp board will consist of seven to nine individuals from the categories of clergy members, industry community members, medical/behavioral health care workers and residents from impacted areas.

The project seeks to address imbalances in power and bring about community change founded on social justice, equality and inclusion, prioritizing the zip codes of 89431, 89502 and 89501 within Washoe County. 

Project specifics include a housing program to address affordable-housing assistance, financial literacy, and mental and behavioral health programs. 

Oscar Delgado

“The Second Baptist Church has been a staple in this community,” Delgado said. “For those that are not familiar with community development corporations, it’s an opportunity for nonprofits to be able to establish themselves in the communities that they are a part of, but it also opens them up to the opportunity to receive federal grants.”

The motion was granted unanimously. 

Council members also approved the HUD Annual Action Plan for allocating $2 million in grants from the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. An additional nearly $1.6 million was approved for the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and $179,367 for the Emergency Solutions Grant Program (ESG). 

The HUD Annual Action Plan includes a $165,914 ESG for homelessness prevention. The ESG grant funding will be used to prevent homelessness through rental and deposit assistance for individuals with household incomes of 30% or less of the area median income. 

In the past, ESG funds have been used for sheltering. The proposal would be to switch those funds into the rental and deposit assistance. Last year, CARES funding was able to assist with the rental and deposit assistance. 

“This is a phenomenal program,” Schieve said. “For people living paycheck to paycheck, they can’t afford deposits. This has saved so many people from becoming homeless.” 

The action plan was approved unanimously. 

Peavine Employment Center appeal approved

The council objected to and appealed the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Commission’s determination of nonconformity with the 2019 Truckee Meadows Regional Plan in regards to the proposed Peavine Employment Center. The project site is near the southeast intersections of Red Rock Road and Trail Drive. 

The proposed amendment to the City of Reno Master Plan changes the land use designation on a 210.52-acre site from Large Lot Neighborhood and Public Quasi Public to Mixed Employment and Parks, Greenways, and Open Space. 

In addition, approximately 45 acres of the project area are currently located in Unincorporated Washoe County and are designated as High Density Rural, the equivalent to Large Lot Neighborhood in the City of Reno. 

The project will be primarily industrial in nature with a small gateway commercial corridor at the entrance to the site. 

On March 23, 2022, the council approved the proposed amendment, subject to the approval of regional planning. 

A map of proposed zoning changes for the Peavine Employment Center off Red Rock Road.

The proposed project is considered a project of “regional significance” for having an effect on increasing employment estimated at 2,106. 

While a staff review of the project found that the area has “more than enough” projected housing capacity to meet a 20-year demand, enough of the Regional Planning Commission disagreed. Commissioners cited reasons such as incompatibility with surrounding residential units, general opposition to growth in the area and existing geographical boundaries when denying the project. 

At the Regional Planning Commission meeting, five voted for the project while four voted against it, leaving the the project one vote shy of the six it needed to pass. Of those in favor, three were City of Sparks representatives one represented Washoe County and one represented Reno. 

“We’ve often heard that we need buffers between these kinds of projects  – between residential and industrial,” Councilmember Duerr said. 

“Housing wasn’t appropriate there,” said Councilmember Bonnie Weber. “Warehousing is the appropriate thing to do.” 

“Within the framework of our master plan, this is in the foothill neighborhood typology because it is a flank of the Peavine mountain,” said Brekhus. “This sort of use—which will flow through to a mega-warehouse that will flatten probably the greatest leveling at high elevation in the whole valley—is not anything that was ever contemplated in the foothill neighborhood typology.”

Brekhus went on to say that it will be a “remarkable project to watch.” 

Council members voted to object to the Regional Planning Commission’s ruling with Brekhus voting against the choice to appeal. 

Other Council Items

Provided by the city and edited by This Is Reno. 

Grants accepted: Council adopted a Resolution granting 36 arts and culture National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) American Rescue Plan (ARP) Grants totaling $450,000. Individual grant amounts ranged from $5,000 to $17,280 to the recipients listed in the Staff Report.

Council accepted a nearly $25,000 grant award from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation for the Renown Alumni Recreation Therapy Program. The program is devoted to person-centered care that promotes confidence, independence and overall well-being for individuals who have sustained a neurological injury.

City Code to receive more updates: The city recently completed some updates to Reno Municipal Code Title 18, which covers “Annexation and Land Development,” however a number of items within the code were pulled for further review during that process. 

Council directed staff to initiate an amendment, including the use of consultants, to update those sections of the Title 18 code that needed further review. Sections within the code include affordable housing, appeals, sustainability, historic preservation, smoke free business, flood hazard, short term rentals, signs, residential compatibility, major drainageways, wildland/urban interface, and communication facility and equipment.

Union contracts approved: Council approved collective bargaining agreements through June 30, 2024 covering police, firefighters and administrators.

Contract awards: 

  • Council awarded a contract to Sierra Nevada Construction, Inc. for the Stead Boulevard Sewer Capacity Project for $7.8 million from the Sewer Fund.
  • Council approved a Consultant Agreement with Atkins for construction services for the Stead Boulevard Sewer Capacity Project for up to $528,755 from the Sewer Fund. The project, located on Stead Boulevard in the North Valleys, was identified as a high priority for replacement to accommodate future capacity needs for the North Valleys.
  • Council approved an Award of Contract to Bruce Purves Construction, Inc. for the renovation of the Plumas Gym men’s and women’s restrooms to conform to ADA standards in an amount not to exceed $540,000 from the CDBG Fund and General Capital Project Fund.
  • Council awarded a Contract to Martin Harris Construction Company, Inc. for the City Hall Seismic Upgrade Project in an amount not to exceed $10,113,758 from the General Capital Fund.
  • Council approved a Consultant Agreement with BJG Architecture and Engineering for engineering support and construction services for the City Hall Seismic Upgrade Project in an amount not to exceed $503,800 from the General Fund.
  • Council approved a Consultant Agreement with Wise Consulting for abatement project monitoring and reporting for the City Hall Seismic Upgrade Project in an amount not to exceed $150,700.

Update: This story has been updated to indicate the working relationship between Councilmember Brekhus’s husband and Reno City Manager Doug Thornley. Details on the Regional Planning Commission’s vote on the Peavine Employment Center have also been updated.

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