Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Saturday, July 11, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Boulder Dam Hotel
Beyond the Sun
The behind-the-scenes politics surrounding the closure of the historic Boulder Dam Hotel illustrate one truism about Boulder City.
It’s a small town, after all.
The hotel, built in 1933 during the construction of Hoover Dam, will close at 5 p.m. today because the nonprofit group that owns it ran out of money. The cozy connections with the City Council that had been so helpful to the hotel in the past this time around doomed the last-ditch efforts to save it — and could set a precedent that forces changes in the way Boulder City has always operated.
On Monday an appeal to the City Council for tens of thousands of dollars in redevelopment money to rescue the hotel and the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum that it houses failed on a 2-2 vote because Councilman Duncan McCoy, a strong supporter of the rescue plan, abstained.
City Attorney Dave Olsen advised McCoy not to vote on the bailout because he used to serve on the board of the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association, which owns the hotel, restaurant and museum.
“It made me heartsick to make that recommendation,” said Olsen, who called it a conservative position taken when he was called to “shoot from the hip.”
The basis of his advice came from state ethics law addressing a public official’s commitment in a private capacity to the interest of others. The key question, Olsen said, is whether the official’s independent judgment would be affected.
It doesn’t matter if it is a nonprofit group with a good cause — and that can be important in a town of fewer than 17,000 people, where many of the social services are handled by nonprofit groups: Emergency Aid of Boulder City is the town’s resource for the poor and homeless; Lend-A-Hand, its resource for shut-ins; and the Senior Center of Boulder City runs the only senior center in the city limits.
“The nature of being a politician is to make commitments to others in a private capacity, whether it is to Lend-A-Hand, the Senior Center, the hotel or any of these worthy causes,” Olsen said. “How can they then not be in violation of our ethics rules if they participate in discussion and vote?
“I don’t know where you draw the line exactly.”
It’s a line that hasn’t been drawn much in the past.
Former Mayor Bob Ferraro was founding president of the historical association and served on the board for 20 years, many of those while he was on the council. From 1993 to 2005, the city was part-owner of the hotel through the Boulder Dam Hotel Association.
Ferraro’s was one of the votes in 2005 that lifted a deed restriction on property the hotel owned so it could sell the parcel and buy out the city and other partners.
Another belonged to Councilwoman Andrea Anderson, whose husband, Bruce, was former president of the historical association. Andrea Anderson made the motion to lift the restriction.
That deal also involved the Boulder Dam Credit Union, which bought the property for $170,000.
The credit union’s manager was Bill Ferrence, a founding member of the Boulder Dam Hotel Association and husband of Cheryl Ferrence, president of the historical association at the time.
Ferrence finds himself in a similar position now, as president of the historical association and manager of the credit union that holds two mortgages worth $940,000. He also is the brother-in-law of hotel manager Roger Shoaff.
Ferrence offered his resignation to the historical association board months ago, but the board asked him to stay until imminent foreclosure forced him to resign, said board member Rod Woodbury (son of former County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, who voted in 2002 on the original county grant that allowed the historical association to purchase the property in question.)
Ferrence’s resignation was accepted when the historical association board voted Wednesday to close the hotel.
The web of connections is just the way small-town life is, McCoy said.
“There are a number of different kinds of people in municipal life,” he said — some who do a little, some who do nothing and some who carry the heavy loads.
“Removing the people who work hard in the community from the dialogue and decision-making if they are members of a public body, that has far-reaching implications not just for Boulder City, but for every public body in the state,” McCoy said.
Councilwoman Linda Strickland, who asked Olsen for the opinion, said the law is the law, good cause or not.
“In a small town, where you have council members who tend to be involved in different organizations around town, does that make them subject to disclose or abstain? I think it does,” Strickland said. “In some respects, it’s always good to have council members involved in the community. But there needs to be some caution in what organizations you are involved in so that you don’t have the full council that has to disclose or abstain.”
McCoy is not satisfied with the advice and plans to ask the state Ethics Commission for an advisory ruling, which could take 45 days. If the commission backs him, he said, he would move to bring the issue back to the RDA.
It might not be too late. The historical association board has given itself until Sept. 10 to raise $250,000 to reopen the hotel.
Olsen doesn’t think he was wrong, but he is happy to go to the commission for an advisory opinion, especially considering his wife, Val Olsen, is a member of the historical association board. (She also sells advertising for the Boulder City News, a sister publication of the Las Vegas Sun.)
Two nights after the rescue plan failed, Val Olsen was among the association board members who voted to close the hotel, and she ordered and paid for the signs that told the public the hotel was to close.
“My wife and I have a unique relationship,” Dave Olsen said. “She knows, as I do, that there are some things we cannot talk about with each other. So we don’t.”