Sisyphus in Boulder City
By Paul Jacob
Public officials cannot simply throw dissenters into a gulag and govern by decree. But the city governors in Boulder City, Nevada, have found the next best thing.
Sue the people.
Regularly and repeatedly.
As a method of effectuating an oligarchy, what could be more American?
Boulder City is a small town of just under 17,000 residents located 20 miles southeast of Las Vegas near the Arizona border. Built by the federal government in 1931 to house workers constructing the Hoover Dam (originally called the Boulder Dam), Money magazine recently named the city one of the “25 Best Places to Retire,” noting among several factors its Best Dam Barbecue cook-off each May as well as what it lacks: gambling, tourists, and a state income tax.
Not mentioned at all, however, was the whopping $125 million of public debt the city has amassed. In addition to each citizen’s $45,384 share of our $14 trillion national debt, pile on another $7,000 per Boulder City resident for local government red ink.
How did this little city rack up so much debt? Much, if not most of it, comes from the city council’s decision — without bothering to waste their time asking for public approval — to build the Boulder Creek Golf Club, which opened in 2003.
One can easily understand the life-or-death need for a place to go golfing, of course. Yet, this was the city’s second public course. The first, built in 1971, was approved by voters. Mysteriously, once the second course was operational, the first (as well as the second) began to lose money, with revenues falling from over $600,000 annually to only $40,000.
As city leaders busily juggled accounts to compensate for the city’s disastrous further foray into the sports entertainment business, citizens got busy putting a little old-fashioned democracy into action. Relying on their constitutional right to the initiative process, petitions were filed to place four measures on the ballot that would reform city governance and tackle the problem of mounting indebtedness:
1. a change from an appointed to an elected city attorney;
2. a requirement that any debt obligation of $1 million dollars or more be approved by voters;
3. a 12-year term limit on appointments to city committees, boards or commissions; and
4. limiting the city to ownership of only one golf course of not more than 18 holes.
Yes, the barbarians were at the gate.
The law requires the city attorney to review such petitions as to their form and legality — or, should that individual feel conflicted, assign outside legal counsel to perform that service for the petitioners. The city attorney refused to do either.
When the sponsors turned in more than enough signatures from their fellow citizens, the city attorney — without any authorization from the council — filed suit on behalf of Boulder City to block the people from voting on three of the four issues. Shockingly, City Attorney Dave Olsen mustered the restraint not to sue to block the measure concerning his own job.
But what seems most bass-ackwards about the lawsuit — aside from the obvious lack of respect for the people and the basic notion of democracy — is exactly who the city attorney slapped with the suit. Not the city clerk, nor the registrar of voters, or someone who in their official position would be responsible for conducting the election. The city attorney sued the individuals who petitioned to put these proposals on the ballot — personally.
Later, the city council took up the issue, voting 3-2 not to challenge the term limits measure or the issue of requiring voter approval for acquiring debt of a million dollars or more. On suing to block the measure limiting the city to one publicly-owned golf course, the council was split, 2-2. City Attorney Olsen took that indecision as an engraved invitation to continue the suit.
City Councilwoman Linda Strickland and her husband and law partner, Tracy, are defending the individual sponsors of the petition. Linda Strickland has also been a solid voice and vote on the council against the sue-the-people-to-block-their-vote mentality. She and her husband and their democracy-deploying defendants prevailed in court, permitting Boulder County voters a chance to cast ballots on all four of the initiative measures this past November.
But Strickland’s motion to dismiss the city’s lawsuit against her clients under Nevada’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law was denied and appealed and now that issue remains in front of Nevada’s highest court.
Last November, Boulder City voters said yes to changing the city attorney from an appointed to an elected position and to requiring voter approval of any debt obligation of $1 million dollars or more and to the a 12-year term-limit on appointments to city boards, but defeated the idea of limiting the city to just one golf course.
The end of the story? Not on your life.
Just as with previous initiatives passed by city voters, the council voted to have City Attorney Olsen sue the people who proposed the debt limit and term limits measures to overturn them. (A second affirmative vote in 2012 is required for the provision making the city attorney an elected position to be added to the charter. After another vote, a lawsuit may follow.) So far, city taxpayers have been forced to pay upwards of $70,000 in legal fees for their public servants' attempt to overturn their vote.
In defending the petition sponsors, the Stricklands again asked the court to dismiss the suit under Nevada’s anti-SLAPP law. Last week, a judge in one of the cases allowed the city’s lawsuit to continue citing a “loophole” in that law, even though he admitted that “some of the things the city has done are very troubling” and that he was “extremely concerned about a chilling effect.”
A judge in the other lawsuit has pledged to issue a ruling soon. But whatever that outcome, this issue is soon to be decided by the Nevada Supreme Court. At stake is whether there exists, in practical terms, any right to initiative — any way to establish a check on elected officials and any grassroots method to reform government.
Boulder City is not alone in exhibiting woefully anti-democratic behavior. Such grassroots suppression is happening with increasing frequency — and burgeoning ingenuity — all across the country. Two proponents of a ballot measure that failed at the polls in Colorado last November are now being sued (facing escalating, crushing legal fees) for ridiculous allegations of fraud in a long-completed petition drive. Moreover, the preposterous charges aren’t for their actions, but for the actions of others over whom they had no control.
The ultimate result of such litigation brought against citizen activists, if unchecked? Inactive citizens. A quiet populace unwilling to risk engagement in the political process, and thus unable to hold government accountable.
Just what the folks enacting these laws and suing the people for whom they allegedly work want to happen: For us to shut up and pay our taxes.
To read another article by Paul Jacob, click here.