Documents included in an open meeting law complaint submitted by Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus to the Nevada Attorney General include a letter sent on July 29 by County Manager Eric Brown to Reno City Manager Doug Thornley.
Brown expressed concern about Brekhus’ “lack of professionalism” and “belligerence” during a public meeting the week before, a meeting that prompted Brekhus to file the open meeting law complaint, first reported by This Is Reno.
Brown’s letter was sent seven days after a joint meeting between Washoe County commissioners and Reno and Sparks council members where all elected officials and city and county managers attended the meeting virtually, except for Brekhus who attended in person at Washoe County Commission chambers.
Brekhus gave public comment during the approval of the agenda to complain that proper notice of the meeting being virtual for elected officials hadn’t been provided. She also said she was frustrated that official business was being conducted virtually despite those providing public comment and presentations being required to attend in person.
In the letter Brown alleges that Brekhus was verbally abusive to Washoe County staff and subjected them to embarrassment and public ridicule.
“She was quite upset and verbally lashed out at my staff member. She then opted to sit in the front row of the Chambers and continued to complain within earshot of staff and the public,” Brown wrote in the letter to Thornley. “I know you can understand that I must bring this incident to your attention and respectfully request that Councilmember Brekhus is made aware that her conduct will not be tolerated in our meetings in the future.”
Brekhus said she thinks the letter was sent only to undermine her open meeting law complaint. She also said it was retaliation for filing the complaint.
“I dispute this account and inquire whether Mr. Brown would have made this allegation had I not filed an OML complaint,” Brekhus wrote in supporting documents provided to the AG’s office.
“It is highly unusual for a highly placed official to publicly malign an OML complainant,” Brekhus continued. “I fear that Mr. Brown might take additional steps to cause me reputational harm and undermine the legitimacy of my complaint.”
Brekhus’ complaint stems from a Nevada open meeting law requirement that the location of the meeting be included in all posted agendas. Those agendas – one each from Washoe County, Reno and Sparks – listed two different locations.
The Washoe County and City of Reno agendas listed the Washoe County Commission Chambers at 1001 East Ninth Street as the meeting location. The City of Sparks agenda listed its own legislative chambers in Sparks.
Fine print on the agendas posted by the county and Reno noted that one or more officials or staff “may attend and participate by remote technology system.”
An email from Brown’s assistant, Erick Willrich, sent to elected officials and staff two days before the July 22 meeting – and two days after an agenda with the Washoe County Commission chamber listed as the meeting venue – stated, “We have planned a concurrent VIRTUAL meeting including Washoe County, Cities of Reno, and Sparks, with a single point of public comment hosted at the Washoe County Chambers…”
Brown said the meeting invitation was sent to Brekhus three times.
“The third iteration included the Zoom information, agenda, and detailed instructions to join virtually,” he added.
Brown called in to the meeting from Oregon where he said he was attending the World Track and Field Championships.
Thornley forwarded Brown’s letter to Brekhus. He said he was disappointed.
“I am concerned that incidents like this make us less effective as an organization,” Thornley wrote. “During my time as city manager, our team has been steadfast in its belief that the way we treat each other matters. I am extremely disappointed to have to send this note, and will be forward [sic] the matter to your colleagues for their consideration.
In-person participation allegedly not allowed
In an eight-point declaration submitted to the AG’s office as part of the complaint, Brekhus also said that she was prevented from participating in the meeting as an elected official in person.
She said she had asked Willrich, who was in commission chambers during the meeting, if she could stay in the chambers to participate in the meeting.
“He answered no,” she wrote. “I was in a confused state, because I did not understand how a chamber could be partially filled with staff and some members of the public for a meeting of a governing board but I, a member of that governing board, could not participate in the meeting if I remained in the meeting chambers.”
Brekhus said Commissioner Jeanne Herman said she also had wanted to attend the meeting in person but wasn’t allowed.
“County Commissioner Jeanne Hermann called me by telephone to tell me that she appreciated my public comment and that she too wanted to participate in person but was told by Washoe County staff that she could not,” Brekhus added.
Rules of Nevada’s open meeting law were relaxed by Declaration of Emergency Directive 006 issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak on March 21, 2020.
The directive, issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowed for public meetings to be conducted virtually. Sisolak ended the state of emergency on May 20 of this year.
Nevada open meeting law was revised in 2021 and does allow for holding meetings using remote technology, with some restrictions for participation and access.