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Lobbyists may soon need to register with county to attend commission meetings

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Washoe’s Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday heard the first reading of a new ordinance that would require compensated lobbyists to register with the county. 

The policy, which some said was overdue, was modeled after the City of Reno’s lobbyist policy and is similar to others in effect in Clark County, Las Vegas and Henderson. It would require anyone who receives anything of value – is paid, basically – to communicate with county commissioners on behalf of someone else on any issue to register with the county. 

Commission Chair Alexis Hill, in an interview on Nevada Newsmakers earlier in the month, said she believes some of those frequently providing scripted public comment at commission meetings may be paid to provide that comment. Requiring those paid to lobby the commission increases transparency, she said. 

“Folks can be paid to come to our meetings and speak, that’s fine, and even have a meeting with the county commissioners. But you need to register with us,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for our constituents to see who is paying people to come to our county commissioner meetings and disrupt them.” 

A group of far-right community members, who often provide comments on every possible agenda item during commission meetings, took Hill’s comments personally and expressed concern that they would be accused of being lobbyists.

Commissioner Clara Andriola asked several questions of county staff to clarify the ordinance’s language.

“I did not see any language that would require a citizen – a concerned citizen – of coming in and sharing whatever he or she would like to share at the appropriate time,” Andriola said. 

Washoe County Commissioner Mike Clark. Image: Washoe County.
Washoe County Commissioner Mike Clark. Image: Washoe County.

“I will say what value is. It’s getting a 12-pack for $5 at Walmart.”

Washoe County Commissioner Mike Clark

The county’s government affairs liaison Cadence Matijevich confirmed that the policy would not apply to unpaid, ordinary citizens speaking to commissioners. 

The new rule would require the list of registered lobbyists to be kept on the county’s website. Lobbyists would need to complete an initial registration and then be responsible for keeping that registration updated with new or removed clients. 

Commissioner Jeanne Herman said she thought the ordinance was suspicious and that she would never vote for it. 

Commissioner Mike Clark balked at some of the language within the ordinance, such as the term “value.” Assistant District Attorney Nate Edwards said the definition of value in this instance is a legal one, a response Clark said was “laughable.” 

“I will say what value is. It’s getting a 12-pack for $5 at Walmart,” he said. “Where does this end? Who’s going to police this? Who’s going to investigate if somebody’s not telling the truth?”

Laughable was a term Clark used multiple times within his comments, adding he felt the policy was micromanaging people and would make citizens feel uncomfortable speaking before the commission. 

He also suggested that county-level meetings were “an informal meeting of citizens talking about things that citizens are interested in” and should not be regulated in the same way the state legislature is. 

Commissioner Mariluz Garcia said prior to Tuesday’s meeting, she spoke with some known lobbyists to get their feedback on the ordinance. 

“It was overwhelmingly just a dull conversation…from the folks that I talked to,” she said, adding that the issue was non-controversial. “They were supportive. They register at the state. They’re doing it in other jurisdictions. This is being done in other places, so I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say we’re doing anything innovative.”

Lobbying regulations have been enacted in jurisdictions across the country since the 1940s, and lobbying is a big business, especially at the state and federal levels. The nonpartisan Open Secrets website estimates that in 2019-2020 about $3.5 billion was spent on lobbying at state capitals. 

Experts say much less is spent on lobbying at city and county-level meetings. However, Commissioner Clark acknowledged that there are many lobbyists in the community, some of whom do speak on behalf of clients at commission meetings. 

The ordinance will receive a second reading during a public hearing on Sept. 12, 2023.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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