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Term limits still unclear, three decades after approval


by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current

A ballot measure approved by Nevada voters in the last century is still being debated today, and could upend at least two mayoral races at opposite ends of the state – in Reno and North Las Vegas. 

Nevadans voted twice, as required by law, in 1994 and 1996, to amend the state constitution to limit the terms of elected officials. 

“Proponents argue that passage will stop career politicians since no one will be able to hold one office for several terms,” said the argument for passage provided to voters in 1994 and 1996. 

The accompanying explanation said, in part, that “…local governing body members would be limited to twelve (12) years.”

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve has already served 10 years on the Reno council, and would surpass the 12-year mark a year-and-a-half into her next term, should she be re-elected. 

In North Las Vegas, city councilwoman and mayoral candidate Pamela Goynes-Brown has been on the council since 2011. She would surpass the 12-year mark six months into her first term as mayor.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that for most Nevada cities (including Reno and North Las Vegas), mayors and council members share the same duties, and term limits apply to years of service on the same board, regardless of the position.

Do Schieve and Goynes-Brown intend to comply with the will of the voters and resign during their terms, if elected? Neither candidate responded to the Current’s request for comment.  

“As an already elected leader, Pamela Goynes-Brown pledged to uphold the Nevada Constitution. Yet, she is blatantly ignoring the constitutional amendment voted on twice by voters to limit public service to 12 years,” says Lisa Mayo-De Riso, campaign manager for Sen. Pat Spearman, who faces Goynes-Brown in the North Las Vegas general election. 

George “Eddie” Lorton, who came in second in the primary and faces Schieve in the Reno general election, declined to comment. 

A District Court ruling earlier this year from Judge Connie Steinheiner says candidates are eligible to run for a term that will take them beyond 12 years in office, as long as they have not been in office for 12 years when their current term expires.  

The ruling comes from a challenge brought by William Mantle, an unsuccessful candidate in Reno’s June mayoral primary, who questioned Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus’ eligibility to run for mayor. Brekus, like Schieve, joined the council in 2012. 

Steinheimer, in upholding Brekhus’ eligibility, cited the term limits amendment to the Nevada Constitution, Article 15, Section 3(2), which says: 

No person may be elected to any state office or local governing body who has served in that office, or at the expiration of his current term if he is so serving will have served, 12 years or more, unless the permissible number of terms or duration of service is otherwise specified in this Constitution.

Steinheimer’s ruling is at odds with the explanation provided to voters in 1994 and 1996 which limits local officials to 12 years in office. It also contradicts a 2014 Nevada Supreme Court opinion, discussing the same constitutional provision cited by Steinheimer. 

“It is undisputed that, under this provision, an individual may not serve in the same state office or position on a local governing body for more than 12 years,” the Court wrote in 2014 in Lorton v. Jones, a case that prevented then-Reno Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza, termed out after 12 years on the council, from running for mayor.

“The voter would be looking at the explanation and saying ‘yes, I agree with that explanation.’ And that would be the intent of the voter, to go along with the explanation,” says Sondra Cosgrove, a College of Southern Nevada professor with experience crafting and advocating for ballot measures.  

“It’s not how long you served on election day or some hocus-pocus with years served,” says Mayo-De Riso. “It’s very simple: if you will serve more than 12 years in a position that is deemed the same as the position you hold now, you are termed out.”

Cosgrove says the “split in the courts” needs to be resolved. 

“There needs to be a case that definitively decides, if the voters voted on that explanation, do we go with the voters intent?” she asks rhetorically. “Or do we say well, they should have read the actual amendment and realized that there was a discrepancy between the explanation and the amendment?”

Mantle appealed to the Supreme Court, even though he and Brekhus lost in the primary. But Brekhus is asking the Court to dismiss the appeal, claiming it is moot. 

“The Nevada Supreme Court decides only actual controversies and does not give opinions on moot questions or abstract propositions which cannot affect the matter at issue,” says a motion to dismiss filed with the Supreme Court by Brekhus on Monday.  

“There is nothing ‘moot’ about the issues that challenge our constitution,” Mayo-De Riso said, adding Brekhus should want the dispute settled by the state’s high court. 

“Because there are some who have followed this path in excess of 12 years and some who are on path to do so, I think the question should be answered as related to others’ candidacy,” Brekhus said via email.  “This ongoing legal matter is a resource burden to me. I am not financially backed by a partisan caucus and am respectfully asking the Court to allow my candidacy to no longer be of question.”

She does not think she violated the will of the voters by attempting to stay in office longer than 12 years.

“This is why we spend so much time arguing about the description of effect and whether it’s clear or not,” Cosgrove says of ballot initiatives, adding the law allows participants 200 words to “tell voters what they’re voting on.” 

When a ballot question is initiated by the Legislature, the LCB writes the explanation, according to Cosgrove. But the Secretary of State’s office writes the explanation for a ballot question born through the petition process. Republican Cheryl Lau was secretary of state in 1994, the first year the question appeared on the ballot. 

“When issues like this arise with laws, the Legislative Counsel Bureau runs ‘clean-up’ bills through the legislative process,” says Cosgrove. “I’m not sure what the court or the Legislature can do when there is a problem with an amendment to the state constitution other than run another amendment for a vote of the people.” 

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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