Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Even more striking than Gilman Ostrander’s title of his Nevada history — “The Great Rotten Borough” — is his subtitle: “A lively study of a state whose history has been marked by some odd aspects not anticipated by the Founding Fathers.”
Odd aspects? Yes, the author had a gift for understatement, too.
Ostrander’s history ended in 1964 and oh, what a 45 years he has missed, including a quarter-century of rotten behavior that might have eclipsed the 105 years he covered.
Ostrander’s title/subtitle come to mind after the decision Friday by the state Ethics Commission to find Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross violated state laws because of the obvious conflict between his elected job and his position as head of the Southern Nevada Building Trades Council. That the commission, after a two-day hearing, reached the right conclusion, despite the laughable addendum they believed the councilman’s behavior was not “willful,” was heartening. But it also highlighted how an obviously unethical scheme was allowed for so long in the still-great rotten borough, given cover by spinning city attorneys and an enabling council.
The economy of Nevada may be at a low point, but the political system may be, too — and I’d hate to think which can go lower.
From Carson City to Las Vegas, state and local governments are populated with too many well-intentioned people who can’t find the fortitude to act and too many inherent weaklings who would rather dither and get re-elected than lead. And those are the ethical ones.
The quality of our public officials is not strained. In Carson City a Democratic-controlled Legislature cared most about maintaining a Democratic- controlled Legislature, overriding The Man Formerly Known as Governor and not allowing Ø to blame them for the state’s budget problems. In Las Vegas a City Council is generally subservient to the outsized personality and ego of Mayor Oscar Goodman, with members creating a de facto strong-mayor form of government. And in Clark County a County Commission, still suffering a G-Sting hangover, is consumed with squabbles and rabble-rousing.
Friday’s ethics hearing, alas, probably changes little because — unless he is recalled — Ross will keep both jobs. And only in the great rotten borough could this not just be tolerated but also sanctioned.
Ross’ taxpayer-funded attorney, Brad Jerbic, inadvertently summed up the overall problem when he told the ethics panelists that poor, aggrieved Ross would have to “be disclosing on everything on that council agenda” under the standard that any item might produce union jobs.
This spectacularly misses the point, which is this: Ross never should have taken the union boss position in the first place. Indeed, the declared public policy of the state says he shouldn’t have: “A public officer or employee must commit himself to avoid conflicts between his private interests and those of the general public whom he serves.” (281A.020, subsection B)
Thus, then-County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates should not have tried to do business with casinos she regulated. Thus, then-Councilman Michael Mack should not have created a conflict by accepting a loan from an auto dealer regulated by the city. And Mayor Oscar Goodman should not have used a mayor’s conference to promote his son’s business venture.
These, as I have said ad nauseam, are not complicated matters. There may be gray areas with part-time elected officials, but most of these ethics questions, unless you can’t see through the pollution in the great rotten borough, are black and white.
As the Ross case was.
Some of these ethics convictions are thrown out on technicalities by capricious judges. But that only fuels the public’s angst and anger. The only solution may be to make the jobs full-time and pay the elected officials commensurately. But the public will be repelled by such a notion.
Some might hope that Rory Reid really will have a new vision for Nevada or Brian Sandoval might give us a reason to believe again. But the enduring rottenness of the borough explains why the public here — perhaps a microcosm for the country — cries out for a third way, perhaps in the person of a third-party candidate for governor, the state’s most important office. Goodman may possess the perfect conjured populism to achieve such an unprecedented victory, but the coming campaign may be less about him than the idea of someone like him.
The Ethics Commission’s decision in the Ross case, that rare display of accountability, will do little to mollify the electorate because of the absence of any real penalty. And the angrier voters become, the more every incumbent at every level, whether his name is Reid or Gibbons or something else, will be in jeopardy.
Jon Ralston hosts the news discussion program “Face to Face With Jon Ralston” on Las Vegas ONE and publishes the daily e-mail newsletter “RalstonFlash.com.” His column for the Las Vegas Sun appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.