Posted on 06 May 2010.
By Jack Johnson, Boulder City Review
A few concerned citizens met at City Hall on April 29 to turn in a signed ballot initiative that could potentially change the way the city attorney assumes office.
Once validated, the 869 signatures, collected in 38 days by 30 residents sitting out in front of the Boulder Dam Credit Union and by going door to door, will give voters the opportunity to change the city attorney’s position from being appointed by the City Council (like the City Clerk and the City Manager) to being elected by the people.
The reasons behind the members of the group wanting to change the city attorney from being appointed to elected vary from the simple belief that more elected officials are better than less elected officials, to issues with city attorney Dave Olsen himself. But the common thread is they feel the office should have more accountability to the voters, rather than the City Council.
According to group member Dan Jensen, with an appointed city attorney, the City Council acts as an unsavory “layer” in between the influential position and the people. Having an elected city attorney, he says, “gives people more of an opportunity to have a direct say in the government.”
“I’m just in favor of the more you get people involved, the better,” he said.
Though Jensen said he has never met Olsen and has no personal feelings about him one way or the other, group member Nancy Nolette certainly does. She is upset about a number of things, but mainly about Olsen filing a lawsuit in 2006, stopping a ballot initiative to sell off Eldorado Valley land and give the money to residents, after it received enough signatures, because he said the residents did not have the right to do so (the Nevada Supreme Court sided with Olsen).
“This city attorney has been non-responsive to the city of Boulder City,” she said. Adding, “His advice is twisted to fit whatever the City Council and the city manager want to accomplish, and I think he needs to held accountable to the people.”
Part of the argument centers on just whom the city attorney is supposed to be accountable to.
According to the initiative group, the city attorney is supposed to be accountable to the people of Boulder City, because they are Boulder City. In a press release, the group cites Article I, Section I of the Boulder City Charter which reads: “… the inhabitants of (Boulder City) … shall remain, be and constitute a body politic and corporate by the name and style of ‘Boulder City.’ ”
Olsen, however, draws a line between his allegiance to the corporation and the citizens.
“The main responsibility of the city attorney is to look after the municipal corporation,” he said, “to make sure city council or citizens don’t do anything to jeopardize (it).”
Olsen said he does this when he carries out his job duties, which are giving legal advice to the City Council and prosecuting misdemeanor offenses in municipal court.
According to elected Sparks city attorney Chet Adams — who, along with Reno’s city attorney, is one of only two elected city attorneys in Nevada — the question of exactly whom city attorney is accountable to is a tricky question that seminars even exist to address.
“Irrespective of whether you are elected or appointed, you do have an obligation to represent the city council,” Adams said. But, “Your lines of allegiance pretty much depend on what you’re being asked to do.”
Adams said those lines can be blurred when you are appointed by the same people you are advising — in the past, he has been asked to clear charges of council members’ sons after they had been arrested, to which he said he would not.
“If I was in an appointed position, that would be very uncomfortable for me to be able to do that,” he said.
But Olsen, who has been Boulder City’s city attorney since 1999, says it wouldn’t matter to him if he were elected or not.
According to Olsen, “I don’t do that job any better because I’m appointed or I don’t think I would do it any worse (if elected) … I think I would take the same approach.” But, he adds, “It would be kind of a luxury to look some of the city council members in the face and say ‘Hey, take a hike, I don’t answer to you.’ ”
But Boulder City voters may not even get the chance to see Olsen in an elected position. If the charter is changed, rather than running, he said he would likely retire early. But that wouldn’t happen right away.
Because the change would be an amendment to the city charter, it must be approved by voters in two consecutive elections — once in the November general election, and again in the June 2011 municipal election. In either election, if voters do not approve changing the charter, the question dies. If the charter is ammended, Olsen said, the first election likely wouldn’t be held until the next municipal election in June 2013.
The reason the group began collecting signatures to get the question on the ballot in the first place is because they proposed it to the City Council in late 2009, but placing it on the ballot was rejected by a majority vote.
According to Councilman Duncan McCoy, the city attorney position should not be elected because, rather than the rigorous hiring process that currently exists for the city attorney, the position would be open up to anyone.
“Worst case scenario,” he said, “we get a beginner in municipal law.”
Not only does the possibility exist of a charismatic, unqualified candidate winning over the voters, but once the city attorney wins the seat, according to McCoy, in absence of the City Council’s goals, evaluations, hiring and firing, the city attorney wouldn’t have to answer to anyone for four years.
“He could go fishing in between elections,” McCoy said.
Councilman Travis Chandler, who was part of the council’s minority vote to get the question on the ballot, felt so strongly about the city attorney position being changed from appointed to elected that he even helped the group gather signatures for the initiative (along with a few other code amendment initiatives, such as limiting the debt the city can incur without voter approval, reducing the number of golf courses the city can own and setting term limits for committee members).
“When you have a client, you always argue in favor of the client,” he said, “The legalities, the protection of the pub interest, it’s really secondary.” Adding, “I don’t even think people appreciate the number of different occasions (Olsen has) come out and acted against the public’s interest … and end of the day, why shouldn’t people be able to choose their highly paid public servants?”
While the initiative only needed to be signed by 15 percent of the 4264 people who voted in the last election — 642 — the 869 signatures gathered showed there is at least some support for the initiative.
According to Chandler, “You’d be surprised. From what I’ve been told, up until last Thursday, it was the most popular petition.”
But just because the group gathered enough signatures, doesn’t mean it will fare as well on election day.
According to McCoy, “I think you could get signatures in Boulder City for almost anything you wanted to get signatures on. That doesn’t mean there’s enough support for this or any other hypothetical thing you can think of.”
So whether people are out for Olsen, they simply believe having an elected city attorney would work better, they can be easily talked into signing something they don’t understand, or all of the above, changing the city’s charter is an important decision that could have unforeseen consequences.
According to Eldon Clothier, who has seen few major charter changes in his more than 20 years on the city’s Charter Commission, “When you make a change in the charter, it doesn’t necessarily make a change that you want it to make.” Adding, “It will backfire if we get Dave Olsen out, and we get someone we can’t get out … it doesn’t matter who it is, whoever we put in there, we just tied our own hands.”
Of course, there would always the option of a costly recall.
But at least now, the wheels are in motion, and if all the signatures are deemed valid, the voters will have a chance to be heard in November. According to Olsen, “Regardless of what happens, the people of Boulder City will get what they want.”