From volatile elections to legislative issues, public servants face a myriad of challenges when it comes to doing their jobs. To gain a little insight into work of a public servant, Nevada Business Magazine recently had a group of Nevada’s elected officials gather at the Las Vegas office of City National Bank. Held less than a week before Nevada’s primary elections, officials discussed everything from term limits to voter engagement. Their discussion was recorded and a condensed version is included in the following pages.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. The magazine’s monthly roundtables bring together leaders to discuss issues relevant to their industries.
Is it a challenge to get quality candidates to run for office?
Mark Hutchison: I think there’s a lot of people who could serve the state of Nevada and the municipalities and the country very well who aren’t serving and should seriously consider serving.
Dan Schwartz: We hold the public sector above the private sector and getting people is a tough, tough job.
Tyrone Thompson: If they’ve gone through issues with law enforcement, in social services, business practices, those are voices we need at the table. Sometimes how we get really great public officials is when one topic has affected their life and they said, “I want to be a change agent for that.”
Scott Hammond: The biggest challenge is managing time as a public servant. There’s a hardship that happens with every family. You have to be able to balance your time. The whole family has to commit to public service, to giving back.
Are constituents engaging enough in politics?
Ron Knecht: There’s a thing called “rational ignorance”. The idea [behind it] is, everybody has so many demands on their time, soccer games, family, church, business, etcetera, you can’t do everything you’d like to. You have to very sensibly say, “What am I going to focus on?” The question for the average citizen becomes, “How much will I get out of focusing on this? If I spend time on this, will I have any impact?” And, if they won’t, it’s very rational that they’ll say, “Okay, I’ll spend time on the things I can have an impact on.”
Hutchison: When we’re in the middle of a primary election, what’s the turnout going to be? [It’s going to be] 20 or 25 percent. If voters participated more in primaries and said, “We don’t want partisanship. We want people who are solvers and are reaching across the aisle and getting things done. That’s who we’re voting for in primaries.” [That would create] a different system and a different result in politics.
Thompson: I think we have constituents that don’t understand the systems. It’s incumbent upon us to educate them, to make them feel comfortable. [Even] if it’s not even us physically, but someone from our teams.
Cresent Hardy: This is a citizen government, people have an obligation to look beyond just what [an elected official] is telling them.
Schwartz: It’s not so much that people are lazy, they don’t care. They’re apathetic.
Hutchison: I think people expect their government to go do the right thing and then they go take care of their private life. I don’t think they say, “I just don’t care about that. I’m going to ignore it.” I think [they say], “I’ve got to take the kids to the soccer game.” Everybody’s going to say [politics] should be important enough. I agree with that. It should also be important enough to exercise and not smoke. It should be important enough to do a lot of things that are good for us as people. Is it because we’re apathetic about our health or is it because we get tied up in other areas? I think we need to be more engaged, but I don’t know if it’s always just apathy.
How important are term limits for public servants?
Hammond: I believe in term limits but I think that, sometimes, the term limits are self-imposed. You only have a certain amount of energy and time that you can give and you do your best. I’m sometimes torn because there’s things I need to be doing with my family, but also things I need to be doing for my constituency. When public servants find that balance, then you have really good public servants. They can give everything they need to. When you have that sweet spot, you’re not going to be in public service too long. You’ve got to give and then get out.
Hutchison: I’m a big believer in term limits. If George Washington did it, it’s good enough for him, there’s nobody that’s not good enough for. There’s a real challenge in terms of, some don’t want to serve in public service because people have served for 30 years and suck the oxygen out of the room. [They may think] special interests are going to give them the money because they’re the incumbents. As leaders, there’s also a need to go back and do what’s even more important and that is to serve your family and communities outside of politics.
Thompson: I was a double public servant at one time because I worked through Clark County and I was a state legislature. It came to a point where I had to decide how I wanted to do this balance and I actually retired early. I made that decision within myself because I wanted to continue to be a more accessible public servant.
Is the governing process transparent?
Knecht: Absolutely not and I’ll give you just one example. The Public Employees’ Retirement System doesn’t want anybody to see any numbers or facts. They hide all of it in their actuary’s office. Dan (Schwartz) and I went to talk to them. They basically will do anything they can to evade any kind of scrutiny and to evade having the public know. They just want you to believe that it’s all good and it’s all taken care of. They may be the worst, but they’re not the only.
Moises Denis: I think there’s a lot of things that are very transparent in the things we do. It seems like we get some new thing and somebody wants a new audit done on something that we’ve done 40 times and we’ve got the information a million ways, right? Part of it is also political. Why do they want the information? To make a good decision or do they want it on their next campaign poster? Some people are leery, especially when trying to attract business and just trying to get things done.
Schwartz: There was an article in the paper [recently] on the new land Las Vegas wants to add to its development plans. And there was absolutely no discussion of this plan. For some reason the leaders of this state, and maybe they have reasons best known to them, do not trust the public or the voters to make intelligent decisions.
Thompson: I think we have to commit to communicating with our constituency. Whether that’s with newsletters, knocking on doors, a campaign or going to where people are and have those tough conversations at times and tell them, “This is what I know.” When you build relationships with people, they’re going to say, “You know what, I feel like Tyrone is telling me what he does know.” And I think that’s a part of it we have to take ownership of.
Schwartz: But if we’re not given this information, whether it’s Faraday Future, whether it’s the stadium, whether it’s the public land of the new development plan, how can we make thoughtful, intelligent decisions? And why is it that people do not disclose this information?
Knecht: I ran for controller specifically to exercise the statutory charge to provide transparency and accountability to the public. That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s a real challenge. It’s a lot of work. It’s time away from the family.
How does misinformation affect how the public views those in elected office?
Hardy: I found out after my first term I was getting full-time insurance benefits for the rest of my life. I was getting retirement benefits for the rest of my life and all of these other benefits for serving one term, at least that’s what I was told. It couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s a narrative you hear, in the press, even. People just want to believe what they want to hear and hear what they believe.
Hammond: For many years I was teaching at the same time as I was a state senator, and I got different perspectives. Some people, I would knock on their door and they would say things like, “Oh, you guys have so much money and so much time” or “You have a staff. Just put your staff on this and get it done.” I also had teenage [students] who would ask me questions all the time. Their understanding was, “You have a super sexy job.” Oh yeah, it’s really sexy. Nobody knows who I am. I walk around free of any harassment. I go home, take out the garbage. And, I had a young one at home, I was changing poopy diapers. There’s nothing super sexy about it. It’s public service.
Knecht: Before becoming controller, I spent eight years on the Board of Regents. One of my colleagues told the story that one of his wife’s friends said, when he got elected to the Board of Regents, “You people really hit the big time now.” [My colleague’s] wife asked her, “How much do you think he makes on the board?” She responded saying, “Oh, $600 thousand a year or something.” You know how much we made on the Board of Regents? [We made] $80 per meeting day. When I would get my income tax form, it had something just over a $1,000 to $1,500 a year.
Hammond: When you talk about this, you can’t really go into detail with people because you don’t want their sympathy. You’re doing it because you want to serve. I was a teacher and not making a lot of money and every time I go up to the legislative session and take a leave of absence, I actually lost money. I can’t talk about that because people are just going to go, “Well, that’s what you asked for.” Which is absolutely true.
Denis: We have a lot of people that moved here from other places where perhaps they have a full-time legislature that have staffs. People always compare us to Texas. They meet every other year. They have full staffs, they get full salaries. And then they come here and, “Well, you can tell your staff.” If we say, “We don’t have staff,” they just think we’re not telling the truth.
What kind of partisan divide exists in Nevada?
Denis: I would say probably 95 percent of everything we do, we vote in unison. Anything highly controversial is probably not going to make it out of committee or even to committee. For the majority of the things we do, we work together to come to a consensus on what’s best for Nevada. But, there are things we’re just not going to agree on. We try to figure out if there is a way to compromise, and if there isn’t then that’s where the partisanship comes in.
Knecht: That’s been my experience too, both in legislature, on the board and as controller. I think it’s important to say the 90/10 rule applies. The 90 percent stuff we all agree on goes through real easy. Everybody knows I’m a limited-government, conservative and when people on the other side took over this time we didn’t have trouble working with anybody at all. We came, sat respectfully, I showed up even when I was pushing a walker and I think some of the committee chairs appreciated that. What I see in partisanship is not between Democrat and Republican. It’s between the limited-government conservatives and the tax-and spend people, people who want to grow government, of both parties.
Hardy: My Dad always told me, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason.” When you listen you may find reasons to soften your views. At the end of the day, you’re there at the state level to find solutions for your state. That’s what state legislature is about.
Hutchison: If you’re a “limited-government” Republican or you’re an “increase public services” Democrat, you’re going to clash. But I think the governor has done a very good job in threading that needle oftentimes. Many times it just starts with a tone and the way you address your fellow legislatures or those you are trying to work with. I may not agree, but I respect them as people and we’re going to try to work together where we can work together. I think that’s some of the challenges we have at the national level. The tone is, I’m not going to call it partisan, I’m just going to call it mean and visceral and just unprofessional.
Denis: I used to think, when I got elected, I could just go over and get Mark to change his belief to what I believe. But we’re there because of the beliefs we have and we all have our own beliefs. Where do we find the middle ground that we can find good things that will help Nevadans? In order to move forward as a state, we have to be able to work together. I hope we don’t get to the national level where it’s getting really hard to get things done. Here we’re still able to work together.
Hardy: We just have got to be better listeners. We’ve got to stop being partisan. We’ve got to start doing our jobs and stop being such ideologues about where we’re headed and guess what? We’ll fix things. I think there’s good people that can do that and I think that’s the direction we need to head.