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August 20, 2018

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Mayor Lee, ever bullish on NLV’s future, sidesteps issue of staff turmoil

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Steve Marcus

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee holds building plans for a yet-undisclosed project during the State of the City address at Texas Station in North Las Vegas Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018.

2018 North Las Vegas State of the City

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee delivers the State of the City address at Texas Station in North Las Vegas Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Launch slideshow »

During his State of the City address Thursday, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee told a story that involved plumbing, a shovel and an F-word that gets tossed around these days in city hall.

No, not that F-word. In this case, as Lee explained, it’s Faraday, as in Faraday Future, the Chinese car manufacturer whose plans to build a massive production plant in North Las Vegas went off the rails in mid-2017.

Discussing how he reacted to the news that Faraday had abandoned its plans, Lee recalled his background in the plumbing business, where he started out digging trenches. At times, he said, he would think he was done digging only to be told that the hole wasn’t deep enough or hadn’t been sloped correctly to allow for proper drainage.

“So I would grab my little shovel, jump back down there and get right back to work,” he said.

When Faraday fizzled, he said, he took the same approach — only this time yanking the ceremonial shovel from the plant’s groundbreaking ceremony off his office wall before going to back work on bringing other businesses to the city.

“We’d done it once, let’s do it again,” he said.

On Thursday, his speech largely focused on a message that despite the disappointment over Faraday, economic development in North Las Vegas was booming. In the past two years, he said, more than 50 million square feet of housing, commercial and industrial development had either been completed or was underway in the city.

And there’s more to come, he said, including a “game-changing” project for which he had a prop — a rolled-up bunch of papers that he said were building plans for the venture. Lee said he’d signed a nondisclosure agreement and therefore couldn’t discuss details of the development, but he told his audience at Texas Station they’d be hearing about it soon.

Asked afterward if he was confident it would come through, he said, “We don’t stand up in front of 700 people and make false claims.”

That line might have kindled memories, however. Asked after his State of the City address last year to speak to reports that the Faraday deal was falling apart and the plant was likely to be scrapped, Lee said, “I can tell you right now: This will be built.”

So stay tuned on the new project, but don’t knock Lee for standing still or giving up.

North Las Vegas has made remarkable progress since he was elected mayor in 2013, and Lee rattled off a number of reasons Thursday to think the growth will continue. Among them: Nellis Air Force Base will be doubling in size over the next two years with the addition of two new air wings; the city is making infrastructure improvements to Apex Industrial Park and around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to attract businesses; and the city has approved construction of thousands of homes.

“We’ve got two speeds here in this city: fast and faster,” he said.

One critical factor in North Las Vegas’ future wasn’t part of Lee’s speech, though, and that was the recent turmoil in the city management team. In the days leading up to Lee’s address, City Manager Qiong Liu left the job after she terminated Assistant City Manager Ryann Juden, who previously had served as the mayor’s chief of staff and had worked on his campaign, after a series of disagreements about infrastructure improvements for Apex. Liu reversed her decision on Juden before leaving the job, and on Wednesday Juden was named interim city manager.

If North Las Vegas were to take the “fast and faster” approach, it would likely name Juden as Liu’s successor and move on. Juden has little background city administration, but he’s a bright guy — a law school graduate who helped create and implement the North Las Vegas turnaround plan. He’s connected with other innovative thinkers in the community, and his status as municipal government outsider might be a strength in a city that has aimed at reducing bureaucracy in order to spur business development.

On the other hand, there are reasons for the city to take the traditional approach and conduct a nationwide search for Liu’s successor. Chiefly, Lee has taken heat over the situation, with critics contending he shoved out Liu to make way for Juden.

That narrative has holes in it, including that Liu apparently never expressed discontent with Juden before firing him, and actually gave him excellent marks on his evaluations. Things got more curious when Liu, after firing Juden, sent council members a scathing memo about him — an approach that human resources managers would generally not recommend. Barring blatant misconduct like committing a crime, termination usually occurs after a series of warnings that provide the employer with a record of accountability to guard against any legal actions the fired employee might file.

But Liu said she had given Juden good evaluations out of deference to Lee, which helped fuel speculation that Lee had strong-armed her.

That being the case, it may be in the city’s best interests to go through an extensive and transparent search. Juden could certainly be a candidate in the search, so the city would seemingly have little to lose.

Asked after his speech whether that would be the city’s approach, Lee deflected the question, saying he wanted to focus on the address and not the manager position.

“We’ll be meeting as a council in the future on that,” he said. “We’re very satisfied that the city’s moving forward.”

So again, stay tuned. There’s some digging left to be done in North Las Vegas.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to clarify details about Liu’s departure from the city.