By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
Meetings of the Washoe County Commission have been interrupted and extended for hours by a core of organized citizens whose purpose is to disrupt county government and put fear into elected officials, Commission Chair Alexis Hill said on Nevada Newsmakers Friday.
“So I would say there is a strong 20-person group that comes and goes to these meetings who are organized or talking to each other,” Hill told host Sam Shad. “They are trying to disrupt the business of the county and ensure that government does not work, which is very scary.”
The antics have extended some commission meetings to all-day affairs, Hill said.
“Meetings that used to take two hours, we are now looking at five to nine-hour meetings, for folks who are just expressing their views on every agenda item,” Hill said.
She suspects an organized group is being paid to bring chaos to meetings. She proposes that if they are paid, they should be required to register as lobbyists and reveal who is behind the choreographed anger.
“We (commissioners) approved opening up the code book to look at a lobbyist ordnance,” Hill said. “So if you are being paid to come to our meetings, then you need to register.
“That’s fine, folks can be paid to come to our meetings and speak or even have a meeting with the county commissioners,” Hill added. “But you need to register with us, (show) who is paying you and wear a tag that you are a registered lobbyist.”
Hill was also dismayed at criticism aimed at Washoe County Manager Eric Brown during the meetings.
“I feel like the language they are using is very racist and inappropriate,” she said. “It feels like it is attacking the fact that he’s an African-American and it is very upsetting to me. I do admire the way he has handled it, with such grace.”
Hill vowed she would “not be bullied” by the group, adding they are seen with some wariness by other commissioners.
“I think there has been an effort to try to create fear within elected officials,” Hill said.
The public disruptions come on the heels of a legal controversy about former Commissioner Vaughn Hartung and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve finding secret tracking devices on their vehicles.
The identity of the person behind the private investigator who put devices on the vehicles remains a mystery. After a Washoe District Court judge ruled the identity should be revealed, the issue was appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court and has not yet been decided.
“I have a daughter who is 20-months old and I would not have installed (security) cameras at my house if I didn’t have my daughter,” Hill continued. “We do now have full cameras at my home.
“And certainly later, the county commission is going to have an opportunity to see all of the security that the county has in place during our meetings,” she said. “We do have a metal detector that you have to go through before you can go to county commission meetings.
“There are things in place but it has certainly been a concern with my fellow commissioners and something I take very seriously,” Hill said.
Complaints about the length of the commission’s meeting have landed in the Letters-to-the Editor section of the RGJ.
“One reason that meetings now run so long and county business has slowed even more is due to the presence of a group of citizens using their public comment time to interrupt every agenda item,” Reno resident Jim McNamara wrote. “That’s six or seven citizens speaking from prepared remarks for three minutes each.”
The disruptions have also occurred in other meetings of county business, according to news reports.
In July, a meeting of the Washoe County Audit Board was shut down after a long public-comment period was dominated by citizens critical of county election supervision, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.
Also last month, Commissioner Mariluz Garcia criticized the behavior of some in the commission-meeting audience. They were upset over the proposed reappointment of a library board trustee because of a “Drag Queen Story Hour” and childrens’ access to books with adult-themed content.
Mark Robison of the RGJ reported:
“What is happening is not OK,’ Garcia said while people yelled and made noises in the gallery. ‘We have a very dire situation where we’re losing community members who are afraid to step up in these positions because of the lack of decorum that is found in our chambers. I see it every single meeting,” Robison wrote.
To help combat the chaos, Hill has moved the “public comment” portion of the meetings to the final item of the agenda.
“I moved public comment to the end, general public comment,” she said. “And I am keeping a tight control on when folks can speak about different agenda items, to make sure they stay on topic and really try to manage staff time in the meetings.”
Putting the public-comment portion at the end of the agenda has re-enforced Hill’s belief that the commentators and disruptors are paid.
“It is hard to believe that they are not (being paid),” she said. “Because some of these folks, they are staying for five hours to the end of the meeting to do public comments. Their remarks are scripted for many of these folks.
“I do think it is organized,” Hill continued. “I don’t want to say that folks can’t come to the county commission and bring legitimate concerns, but when you have folks who work together, plan to discuss a topic that is not even on the agenda for public comment and then they all come, for example, waving library cards, as if they have a concern about the library, that is an organized effort.”