Public Process in Crisis
Unilateral actions by City Hall are sidelining the community.
As longtime readers know, The Barber Brief rests on the fundamental premise that public engagement is critical to a functioning city. A healthy system of public engagement demonstrates a city’s commitment to inclusion and equity, transparency, and thorough deliberation, and ensures that our local government is truly representative of (and accountable to) the people it serves.
This isn’t a radical premise; it’s the foundation of good government. And the key to ensuring that public engagement can be effective is public process—the mechanisms set up to involve the public in City actions. Robust public processes are the hallmark of participatory government, and include citizen commissions and advisory boards, multiple levels of public review, and reliable methods for residents’ questions and concerns to be addressed well before decisions are made on their behalf.
Adherence to promoting, preserving, and respecting those mechanisms is what distinguishes a city from a private corporation (or an authoritarian regime).
I started the Brief last January in response to some disturbing trends I was seeing in Reno city development—trends that to me demonstrated a steady erosion—and in some cases a deliberate dismantling—of many of those robust public processes, something I discussed a year ago in an op/ed for This Is Reno titled “Don’t Confuse Special Interests with the Public Interest.”
In short, I saw a crisis looming. And I won’t mince words here: that crisis has arrived.
Over the past months we’ve seen a clear escalation in plans being formulated out of public view and with no public outreach, the bypassing of citizen commissions, dismissal of public opposition, and criticisms by some City leaders of “swirling misinformation” about issues and projects while not themselves creating opportunities to provide timely and accurate information in public forums.
Our community—that is, the residents who actually make up the community—is being shut out.
And the resulting decisions affect us all, because so many of these decisions involve public spaces—our parks and plazas, our city streets, and even entire areas of downtown—not only what they’re named, but what they look like, how they function, who is welcomed there, and who isn’t.
Whatever you think of these decisions—whether you favor or oppose them—we should all be concerned about the breakdown of public process, and not let what’s happening be normalized, as I’m afraid is starting to happen. Let’s take a look at the last two weeks for examples of how the public is being sidelined in favor of unilateral decision-making, and how it’s being justified by those who practice and support it.
The Public Process and the Jacobs Development Agreement
City Council finalized the Development Agreement with Jacobs on October 27 with a second reading of the ordinance. I’ve written extensively about the one-sided nature of this agreement, most recently in my October 23 post “City Council’s Baffling Approval of the Jacobs Development Agreement.” But what I really want to focus on here is what Councilmembers had to say in that meeting about the public process.
As on October 13, when a Council majority initially approved the agreement, most of the comments opposing the item (130 in this case, with zero in support) urged a delay, to enable more public discussion. It was fully in the power of City Council to do that, and yet despite the assertions by many Councilmembers that the public was confused about the deal (Councilmember Jardon referred to “swirling misinformation” about it and Councilmember Reese referred to what he called a “disinformation society” motivated by a “political agenda” and “disconnected from reality”), they refused to schedule a workshop before their vote to correct whatever they believed the public had wrong.
What I found especially troubling was their representation of precisely why some Councilmembers thought residents wanted a public workshop, suggesting that it was to learn more from Jacobs Entertainment about what Jacobs planned to do in the area. The implication was that anyone complaining about this agreement should have scheduled a meeting with the Jacobs reps, something the Mayor had kept grilling Councilmember Brekhus about on October 13 and repeated in this meeting, praising Garrett Gordon at one point for having been so willing to meet with anyone.
That’s all well and good, but that line of argument seemed to completely miss the point. The reason so many residents were clamoring for a public workshop was in order for our City representatives to learn what residents wanted the City to write into that Development Agreement—and which elements they felt should be modified or eliminated—in order to provide clearer benefits and guarantees to the community. I provided many examples of the kinds of things Development Agreements can include in my last post, so I won’t repeat them here, but they are substantial, and the City imposed none of them.
Only a public workshop run by the City held in advance of the agreement’s adoption—not private meetings between residents and the developer—could have accomplished that. And now it’s too late to change that agreement, no matter how many public meetings the Jacobs reps agree to (they’ll be at the Ward 5 NAB meeting tonight, November 9, at 5:30 pm in Council chambers and on Zoom).
It’s the City, not Jacobs, that needed to go above and beyond the bare minimum of required public meetings here, to create a more vigorous process to protect the public interest in such a momentous agreement that affects so much of downtown. Councilmember Duerr, who had been the most vocal advocate for a public workshop, mounted a strong defense of its necessity, and did in the end secure an agreement from Mr. Gordon to participate in a public workshop run by the City before the company submits any applications for signage or other permits (there has been no announcement of a date for that yet). But the Development Agreement is a done deal.
Should residents meet with Jacobs Entertainment now, if they have the opportunity? Absolutely. You never know how residents might individually or collectively influence them, and more information is always better. But only the City could have established legal and binding requirements for what Jacobs can and cannot do with the parcels they own (and the public rights-of-way around them), and they failed to implement a thorough public process that would have allowed residents to fully participate in shaping that agreement, and subsequently the west side of our downtown.
Behold your new City Plaza (no community input required)
Also in the October 27 Council meeting, tucked away in a “Budget Augmentation” item on the “Consent Agenda” were two items impacting the future of the City Plaza, located between City Hall and the river (i.e. the “Mapes site”). I wrote about this space in my July 17 post called “Public Spaces and Public Places," where I outlined its history, the failed process that left it an ugly concrete slab, and why it deserves a complete overhaul in dialogue with the many constituencies and commissions whose purview it intersects, as the most prominent public space in downtown Reno.
The Consent Agenda consists of items that City Council can choose to approve in one fell swoop, if they decide not to “pull” any items for discussion. So we might not have heard anything about these items at all were it not for some attentive members of the press, who learned from the meeting materials that the City had budgeted funds to purchase the Space Whale and add elements to turn City Plaza into a skateboarding park. Councilmember Jenny Brekhus pulled the items for discussion, asking whether either project had been subjected to any public review, to which the answer was no.
The plan to add skateboarding elements to the plaza had apparently been at the works at City Hall since August, after a skate shop owner contacted someone at the City with the idea. At the direction of City Manager Thornley, staff from several departments had been working on the design and fabrication of four skateboarding elements to be installed on the plaza with the ability to be moved (via forklift—they’re heavy) should the entire plaza be needed for a special event. Parks and Recreation Manager Jaime Schroeder then showed more schematics of the plan.
The skateboarding idea gleaned substantial praise from Councilmembers for activating a largely “underutilized” space and providing valuable recreational options for skateboarders. Most Councilmembers seemed unconcerned that the public had not been made aware of this plan at all. In fact, Councilmember Neoma Jardon characterized the usual public process as an obstacle to action, saying, “I want to thank staff and manager Thornley for taking action on this. I think it checks all the boxes. It’s mobile, it’s creative, it’s a use that is occurring there to some degree already, and it activates an underutilized place, so I appreciate everybody taking action rather than the government quagmire of letting something sit through meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the skateboarders out there,” something she just reinforced in a new op/ed.
But what Councilmember Jardon called the “government quagmire” of meetings is actually transparent public process. Those “meetings after meetings” represent opportunities for residents to be made aware of an idea, and offer their thoughts, ideas, expertise, and yes, critique, without running the risk of shooting down an idea that has already been accepted, funded, embraced, and practically implemented.
The unilateral approach announces, “We’re turning the City Plaza into a skate park.” A participatory approach would have said, “We’ve been approached about making the plaza a skate park. What do you think?” Thoughtful questions could then have been posed and considered—questions like “Skateboarding terrain might be the best use of a large concrete slab if we were tied to that, but should the plaza remain a large concrete slab?” “Is a skate park the best way to capitalize on this plaza’s location between City Hall and the Truckee River?” “What other citizens and constituencies might have an interest in how this site is programmed?” and “What other repercussions are we perhaps not considering?”
Again, setting the use aside—you may like the skate park idea, you may not---the problem here is unilateral action at the direction of the City Manager to determine the function of a central public space without public review. And raising concerns about that kind of unilateral action isn’t anti-staff, or anti-youth, or anti-skateboarding, but a simple assertion of the fundamental need for the public to be involved in the design and programming of such a pivotal space, especially since temporary uses, particularly City-sanctioned ones, have a way of becoming permanent.
The Space Whale
Sidelining of the public occurred in a different way for another item buried in the Budget Augmentation item: the purchase of the Space Whale. I’m not going to rehash the entire story of this sculpture here; others (This is Reno, Nevada Independent) have done that elsewhere. The upshot is that it was leased to be a temporary installation on City Plaza, as approved by the Arts and Culture Commission, was slated for removal more than a year ago, has fallen into disrepair (it’s made of stained glass), and has only remained in place because Mayor Schieve wants the City to purchase it and create a NFT (Non-Fungible Token) in order to fund its upkeep. To do that, she skipped over the Arts and Culture Commission and Public Art Committee and prevailed upon City staff to add money to the budget for its purchase.
Like Councilmember Jardon, Mayor Schieve expressed impatience with the public processes that might have stood in the way of this unilateral action, saying that “process can be super antiquated" and government itself “antiquated, tired, and stale.” To defend this move, Mayor Schieve cited statistics about the media reach of stories about the sculpture (158.5 million), and the number of times it has been photographed (5.4 million). Her conclusion was that the whale has become a fundamental component of Reno’s brand, second only to the Reno Arch. That doesn’t, of course, tell us anything about how the community itself feels about this particular piece of art, its meaning to local residents, or their desire to make it a permanent fixture on the City Plaza, but it does show that it gets attention, a sort of “branding by default.”
The groundwork for this unilateral purchase was laid months ago. In fact, the Mayor has been discussing the creation of an NFT for the Space Whale in online forums and podcasts since last spring, first announcing the idea on March 4 along with all her hopes for blockchain technology on a show called TezTalks, where her discussion of monetizing the Space Whale through an NFT starts here. On the podcast “Crypto 101” on September 1 (“The Biggest Little Blockchain City in the World with Mayor Hillary Schieve”), she described the NFT as an entry point to “fostering an ecosystem with Blockchain and cryptocurrency” (her interview begins around the 2-minute mark). On an online panel for a “Breakout Cities” event on October 19, she described the NFT as an innovation the City was already pursuing, to raise money for public art.
Now, a participatory approach to this effort would have brought this proposal (for both the sculpture’s acquisition and the broader idea of funding public art through NFTs) to the Arts and Culture Commission (and possibly Finance) for a thorough, public discussion. Instead, the Mayor again reinforced her message that government processes work too slowly, and that as an entrepreneur, she wants to be able to pivot fast, act boldly, and pursue efficiencies, which all sounds great if you’re the CEO of a startup, but perhaps not as the leader of a local government with citizens who deeply care about public art, their public spaces, and defining the City’s “brand.”
Changing the Name of N. Center Street to “University Way”
Branding and public perception are at the heart of another action coming to City Council for approval tomorrow (November 10) under item D.2, when City Council will consider permanently changing the name of N. Center Street (from the Truckee River to Ninth Street) to “University Way.”
The request, which seems to have sprung out of nowhere, comes from UNR President Brian Sandoval via the Washoe County Regional Street Naming Committee, a committee comprised of 11 staff members from Washoe County, Reno, and Sparks, and representatives of public safety agencies, local utilities, and the U.S. Postal Service. President Sandoval brought this request to the Board of Regents in June, presenting letters of support that Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and Downtown Reno Partnership Executive Director Alex Stettinski had apparently written back in April.
He then personally appeared in front of the Regional Street Naming Committee in July. And the committee had serious reservations (view the minutes here), due to concerns that the duplication of the word “University” with other area streets could impact public safety. The committee suggested that the University consider renaming of a shorter portion of the street, but agreed to table the discussion—largely, it appeared, due to the belief that renaming the entire length from the university to the river represented a restoration of the street’s historic name (more on that below).
The committee convened a special meeting in August (view the minutes here), and reported that three agencies (City of Reno Dispatch, REMSA, and USPS) had recommended denial. The committee informed President Sandoval that he was free to appeal their recommendation to the City Council should he choose to do so, but he asked them for more time to review the documents, and they ultimately complied.
The committee then convened yet another special meeting in September (view the minutes here). This time, President Sandoval indicated that he had secured the support of Reno Police and REMSA, and also brought with him letters of support from the current owners of parcels located on N. Center Street. The City of Reno’s Sara Skroch expressed her continued reservations, saying “while this request does have the potential to impact public safety response, she understands that the goal of the request is to strengthen the connection between the University community and the Downtown community.” And the committee then voted to approve.
So here we are. Did the item appear on three public agendas of an obscure committee in July, August, and September? Yes. Was the effort accompanied by any publicity or deliberate public outreach? No. Is it now time for the City of Reno to embark upon its own through and deliberate effort to do just that? Absolutely. The City Council has every right to take the committee’s recommendation into consideration and embark upon its own public process to consider all implications of such a name change.
In fact, the City has not just the right, but the obligation to do so. Why? Because the City itself, under the auspices of the City Manager’s Office, has been undertaking an effort since the summer of 2020 to completely revamp the City of Reno’s own Procedural Requirements to Name or Rename City of Reno Facilities. The ongoing effort has involved four citizen commissions (Historical Resources, Arts & Culture, Human Rights, and Recreation & Parks) most of which have already met multiple times in good faith to discuss the naming and renaming policies, which cover streets, parks, and buildings.
The City began this important initiative last summer, prompted by the calls from some for the City to rename streets and parks related to Francis G. Newlands due to concerns about his racist statements and sentiments. It immediately became clear that the City’s existing process was not suitable for the thorough and deliberate evaluation required in today’s environment to consider such requests. The revised procedures put research and careful deliberation at the forefront, to ensure that any name change requests are handled with the utmost transparency, equity, and thoroughness.
The name of a street—especially a street on the city’s original 1868 townsite—is not just a branding or wayfinding tool. Yes, the section of N. Center Street from the railroad to Ninth Street was named “University Avenue” from 1921 to 1957, but the entire length from the University to the river was never called University Avenue (much less “University Way”), and the City should want to hear that complex story from someone other than the applicant before citing “history” as justification.
I wrote an open letter about this that you can view on my website here. It contains as much information as I could muster in such short notice and documentation of the “University Avenue” name through original newspaper articles. There is no reason to rush this decision, and every reason to respect the process that the City itself initiated last year to give such requests the careful consideration and transparent public review that they—and we—deserve. If you want to contribute any public comment on this item, it’s Item D.2 on tomorrow’s agenda.
The New Vision: Reinvention (Again)
When you start to look at this series of actions all together, some patterns begin to emerge, and the goal becomes clear: reinvention. There’s a lot going on downtown Reno right now, and a lot of people have big ideas about how that reinvention can be achieved. The word we’re starting to hear a lot is “vision.” Back in October, the Reno Gazette-Journal ran a series of pieces outlining Jeff Jacobs’ vision “to move the traditional bustle of downtown from the Virginia Street core to the Neon Line district,” published days before Council’s vote on the Development Agreement.
Further parameters of that coordinated vision became clearer on October 31, when the Nevada Independent published “Downtown Reno rebirth focuses on non-gaming opportunities to boost a changing economy.” A new “vision” for downtown took center stage here, too, with Mayor Schieve stating, “Quite honestly, Reno has needed a bigger and bolder vision for a long time,” and painting some residents (it’s not clear who) as stuck in the past: “You have to embrace change. I know it's hard for a lot of people,” Schieve said. “That’s why I think it's so critical for the city to build those relationships with developers, so that we have a sense of pride in the project, but we also have some skin in the game.”
President Sandoval took the opportunity in this article to announce his desire to change the name of N. Center Street to University Way, just eleven days before the request was to appear at City Council, framing it as a symbolic and potentially generative move: “That creates even more connectivity with the community,” Sandoval said. “But second, it can be a catalyst for a university district in the future, given that you already have Canyon Flats.” In addition, the reporter stated, Sandoval “has also chatted with Schieve about improving bicycle lanes to further connect downtown with UNR,” another hot topic considering the controversy over the RTC’s decision to pause the process of implementing the Center Street Cycle Track, possibly influenced by Caesars Entertainment, as reported most recently by the Nevada Current. The article concluded with President Sandoval’s prediction that “The amount of development and private investment is really going to change the face of Reno.”
And there we have it. That’s what these City leaders are hoping to encourage and perpetuate with all of this rushed and fervid activity: development and private investment.
I was mulling all of this over when a short video produced by content marketer Connie Wray suddenly dropped on November 1, promoted via social media by the City of Reno, the Downtown Reno Partnership, Councilmembers, and others.
This video is a pretty fascinating marketing tool, branding initiative, and mission statement, all wrapped into one slick package. And what exactly is being marketed here? Reno as a fertile investment opportunity. Coordinated interviews with Mayor Schieve, Alex Stettinski, Doug Thornley, and Angela Fuss (the City’s Assistant Director of Development Services, the new name for Community Development) have a clear message: Reno is primed for reinvention, spurred by outside investment.
As Wray’s narration begins, “Reno is becoming one of the top cities for young professionals. More and more technology-driven companies are also relocating to Reno as they see the value of a diversified region. Improving downtown Reno is a major component of economic development. Having a downtown that is alive, with interesting business, art, and culture is what investors, students, and young professionals are looking for.”
Introducing a new slogan that “Great downtowns make great cities,” the Mayor states, later stating, “We want to work with great developers with great vision, but the City cannot afford to pay for that, and that’s how you do create a quality of life—they’re called ‘private-public partnerships’ and those are essential.” The term “private-public partnership,” of course, was applied to the Jacobs Development Agreement, a deal that gave subsidies, credits, and deferrals to a developer along with free reign to unilaterally brand an entire section of downtown and build whatever zoning will allow on the parcels they own (or simply sell them to someone else). Is that the new model?
Here, Mayor Schieve also finally makes public her months-long support for renaming N. Center Street after the University, but curiously without identifying which street (as though it should be a surprise?) and framing the stage of the process as “looking at an initiative” rather than as a decision that City Council would be making just nine days after the video dropped.
For his part, Alex Stettinski of the Downtown Reno Partnership, pitches the City’s hospitable business climate, where it’s much easier to “get things pushed through the pipeline” and where it’s “easier to get things realized if everyone is on the same page, everyone supports a vision, so there is a lot less red tape to go through than in a mega city like Los Angeles.” He reinforced these messages a day after the video drop in a piece for the Northern Nevada Business Weekly, repeating the tagline he attributed to the Mayor, “Great Cities Have Great Downtowns.”
A Question of Momentum
This flurry of City Council decisions related to downtown development, district branding and street naming, the design and programming of central public spaces, and the accompanying blitz of coordinated PR and marketing efforts got me thinking a lot about momentum. Momentum, of course, is the product of mass and velocity, a movement that once initiated continues to build. It is a powerful force.
We have our critical mass here in the array of individuals and entities popping up throughout these varied initiatives, and it’s a powerful group: City and University leaders, business organizations, downtown property owners, lobbyists and gaming companies, economic and tourism authorities. And their trajectory is accelerating—bolstered by a stated impatience with bureaucracy and the slog of public meetings, promotion and praise of the quick pivot, bold moves, decisive action, hasty approvals, enforcement of three-minute limits for Councilmember remarks, ding ding ding, time’s up, time’s up, time’s up.
But where does that momentum leave the residents of the City it is so eager to transform? Where is the public in this equation, the public who are finding it next to impossible (I know I am!) to keep up with the actions of decisionmakers who make so little effort to inform and include them in these critical decisions, who claim that the simple listing of an item on a public agenda somewhere constitutes sufficient public notice and engagement, no matter the topic? What must the purveyors of this momentum see in the public who they so easily sideline?
Unfortunately, I think what they see most of all is friction. Take the time to pause for dialogue, deeper and more thorough evaluation, inclusive and participatory discussions, town halls, and public workshops, and you’ll slow down that momentum, and what’s worse, you might not end up getting everything you want.
But when a City starts to view its own people as an impediment to progress, it has truly lost its way.
In my previous academic life, I would have written about all of this after the fact (and I’m sure expressed it a lot more eloquently!). But I’ve worked too hard on City commissions and City efforts and I love this city too much to just stand by and let the work of so many hardworking, caring, intelligent, and engaged citizens be ignored and bypassed as though they just don’t matter. They do matter. You matter.
I will always side with those who defend the sanctity of our public processes. And I do that because I know what happens when you don’t—and especially when Reno doesn’t. I wrote a whole book about it. Decades ago, the City of Reno realized that the free reign it had given to powerful interests to unilaterally shape its downtown, prioritizing what outsiders wanted it to be without defining and preserving a steadfast vision for what residents wanted and valued, had devastating consequences. And we’ve been struggling to recover ever since.
After that blitz of largely unregulated development, which destroyed so much of what Reno residents loved about their downtown, the City instilled a wide array of safeguards and public processes and commissions and committees and advisory boards to ensure that something like that would never happen again, that we would take our time next time, and work together to get things right.
So when I see City Hall dismantling and bypassing those safeguards and commissions and levels of review, time and time again, in the name of “innovation” and “progress,” I am filled with despair. Because I’m not the kind of historian who traffics in nostalgia. I’m not trying to bring back an earlier Reno or impede progress. I’m not “afraid of change.” I’m trying to help prevent the City from falling into the same old destructive patterns it did before. Because if this beleaguered but beautiful city can’t learn from its past, we may as well just raze it all to the ground and start over.
Everyone wants a revitalized downtown. Everyone wants developers to invest in our city. Everyone wants Reno to change and adapt and evolve and grow. But true innovation comes not from unilateral or coordinated actions by the powerful. It comes from harnessing the tools of the future to reinvent and revitalize public engagement and public process, with the knowledge what truly makes a downtown “great” is the authentic connection that residents can only feel when they’ve played a central role in shaping it. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we should give that up.
As always, you can view my previous e-newsletters, with more context, analysis, and tips, on my Substack site. If you’d like to contribute to my efforts, I have set up a Venmo account at @Dr-Alicia-Barber and would be grateful for your support. Thanks for reading and have a great week.