Published Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010 | 1:08 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010 | 6:10 p.m.
Clark County commissioners voted 5-2 on Tuesday to deny the Clark County court system's request to hire former state Assemblyman Morse Arberry as a lobbyist.
Some commissioners said they opposed the courts or anyone else using public funds to hire a lobbyist for the state Legislature.
Other commissioners said they didn't mind the court system having a lobbyist but opposed hiring a former assemblyman without a "cooling-off" period. Arberry resigned his post in the Assembly last week.
In the end, only commissioners Tom Collins and Lawrence Weekly voted in favor of the court's request.
Arberry, the longtime chairman of the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee, resigned from elected office to pursue a lobbying career, including a $10,000-a-month contract representing the court system in Clark County.
Arberry, a Las Vegas Democrat first elected to the Assembly in 1984, said he stepped down last week to avoid a conflict of interest between his elected position and his lobbying work.
His sudden entry into the lobbying corps underscores the fact that Nevada has no law to prevent legislators from immediately peddling their influence with former colleagues after they leave office. Other states and the federal government have one- or two-year “cooling off” periods to slow the spin of the revolving door between government and special interests that have business before the government.
Arberry, who formed Titan Partners on June 21, has said he doesn’t believe in cooling-off periods.
Commission Chairman Rory Reid, who also is the Democratic nominee for governor, said the rejection of the contract was because of commissioners’ support for a cooling-off period.
“The reason this is controversial is because a legislator was hired during his term to lobby. … If you came here with a proposed lobbyist that you didn’t hire while they were working in the Legislature, I think you would have a different reception,” Reid said.
District Court Chief Judge Arthur Ritchie told commissioners they needed to approve the contract because of the separation of powers between different branches of government in the state constitution.
“It’s not a focus on a few bills that the county and the courts may or may not work together on, it’s about a recognition of the autonomy and sovereignty of the judicial branch of government in our state,” Ritchie said in his opening comments to the commissioners.
But Reid and other commissioners dismissed that argument, saying commissioners retain control over the court system’s budget and have an obligation to protect taxpayers.
“I don’t see our questioning where funding comes from or what the practices are as an issue of interference, I consider it prudent,” Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said.
Reid specifically attacked Ritchie and Chief Judge Ann Zimmerman of the Las Vegas Township Justice Court for their answers to the commissioners' questions.
“You stand in front of us today making a constitutional argument, that you’re the third branch of government, therefore, we should accede to your wishes, period,” he said. “We’ve asked reasonable questions … and your answer has been ‘Because I can.’ That’s your answer; you’re doing this because you can. That’s a bad argument.”
Commissioner Steve Sisolak said it wasn’t about the choice of Arberry, but about the use of scarce money in the current budget situation.
“I just don’t think it’s right for the city, for the county or the courts, or anybody to pay a lobbyist to go up there,” he said.
Former state Sen. Joe Neal came to the meeting to speak in support of Arberry, but was told by Reid that he wouldn't be allowed to speak until the public comment period.
“I have tremendous respect for you, but I can’t offer a senator a special privilege. This isn’t a public hearing,” Reid said.
When the time for public comment arrived nearly two hours later, Neal got up and condemned the commissioners, saying they neglected to consider all of the facts involved in the decision and discriminated against Arberry, who is black, because of his race.
“You didn’t take it into consideration because he was a black person, and you did not allow me to come up and speak because I sit there as a black person,” Neal said.
Neal said he would file a complaint against the commission for violating the open meeting law.
The commission routinely denies people the opportunity to speak before a vote, telling them that unless the item is listed as a public hearing, they have to wait for the public comment period.