Will voters hold Reno city attorney accountable?

Rishma Khimji is the Director of Information Technology for the City of Reno.

If you’re like most people, this item of information is utterly meaningless and swiftly forgotten. Even for me, as someone who has worked in Information Technology for a decade and a half, this piece of information is only mildly interesting and, honestly, swiftly forgotten. If you asked me whether someone should vote for or against Rishma for Director of Information Technology, the best I could do is offer a confused shrug and an anecdote or two from people I know that know her (she’s apparently very nice and professional). If you asked me what criteria should be used to elect a director of Information Technology, I’d do a little better than that: find someone passionate about backups and information security and, whatever you do, don’t elect Baltimore’s – but if you asked me to tell you conclusively which director of Information Technology candidate met those criteria based on their campaign mailers, I’d probably start shrugging again. 

This is all as it should be and goes a long way toward explaining why we don’t elect directors of Information Technology. There’s just no way for any of us to know enough about any individual director to make an educated decision about who we should vote for.

In theory (more accurately, “in hypothesis” or perhaps even “in conjecture”), elected officials are more accountable to the people they represent than appointed or hired officials, who are accountable to those who appointed or hired them. In practice, appointed and hired officials, like directors of Information Technology, can be fired for non-performance, criminal misconduct or just a general unwillingness to work with their coworkers. Elected officials, on the other hand, can retain their jobs through all sorts of otherwise fireable offenses until their next election and sometimes well past that. 

Just ask President Trump, former Sheriff Joe Arpaio or current Reno City Attorney Karl Hall. 

Reno’s first introduction to Karl Hall’s blessedly unique approach to representing his constituents was when City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus revealed that he surreptitiously hired a private investigator to visit every strip club in town. This was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, Reno has a police department, already paid for by the taxpayers, so why the city attorney would use its own resources (also paid for by the taxpayers, to be clear) to hire a private investigator without even contacting the police chief was, at best, a mystery. Second, the city attorney’s office deemed the private investigator’s report confidential under attorney-client privilege (namely, the city attorney’s office’s privilege as a client; the private investigator was the attorney), even though the product of that report guided Karl’s recommendations to the City Council regarding new laws he wanted the council to pass against strip clubs — laws that would potentially force strip clubs away from their properties downtown. 

If that smells like a too-clever-by-half workaround around Nevada’s Public Records Act, you’re not alone in thinking so. The local news, the Reno City Council and the strip clubs all agreed, which is why the report is now available for public view and why the strip clubs sued the city for invading their dancers’ privacy without cause. 

Now, conjecturally — and I say “conjecturally” as the idea is clearly based on guesswork — electing city attorneys ensures that they represent the city as a whole, not an unaccountable city bureaucracy. In practice, that accountability ship sailed far enough past the horizon to escape orbit, heliopause, and the galactic rim when Karl Hall, after his clandestine strip club investigation, decided the best way to defend Reno’s city manager against allegations of sexual harassment in 2018 was to demand a list of workplace lovers from one of the plaintiffs and accuse a member of the City Council of attempting to remove the offending city manager in a court filing. 

It doesn’t take a legal expert to know that sexual harassment complaints are not conditional on whether the person making the complaint has sex with their coworkers. Just because someone is having sex with my coworker, for example, that doesn’t give me the right to make a pass at them, especially if I’m their boss. It also doesn’t take a juris doctorate to know that complaining in a court filing that a city councilwoman took an allegation of sexual harassment more seriously than one’s office would have liked is, as the youths say these days, cringe. Given the level of unconscionable legal malpractice that went into asking such questions and making such complaints on paper, it was only mildly surprising of Reno’s City Council to ask Hall to step down from the case

I say “mildly surprising” because, in a rational political system where city attorneys can be hired or fired at will, the City Council wouldn’t have had to ask the city attorney to step down from the case. Instead, the council members could rightly fire the incompetent attorney, preferably into the Sun or the nearest sustained nuclear reaction, and hire an attorney with some actual sense. Nevada’s political system, however, has been irrational by design for more than 155 years now, so it should come as no surprise that Karl Hall adamantly refused to step down from the case. It should also come as no surprise that the city ultimately settled the case, nor should it come as any surprise that former City Manager Andrew Clinger was subsequently hired as a senior advisor for then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, then hired as the chief financial officer for the Nevada System of Higher Education after a “nationwide search” that apparently did not involve typing his name into a single search engine. 

Naturally, the citizens of Reno punished Karl Hall’s attempted end-run around Nevada’s public records laws, his duplication of existing city resources, his lawsuit-triggering covert private investigation, his accusations against a city councilmember and his attempt to slut-shame city employees by re-electing him.

Now, thanks to the miracle of podcast journalism, it turns out there might be a good reason why Karl Hall hired a private investigator to find mischief at strip clubs. As others noted at the time, private investigators are accountable to their customers, not the public, and Karl had a surprisingly good reason to get one strip club in particular shut down. 

He had money on the outcome.

It turns out that, while Karl Hall’s office wasn’t disclosing that it conducted a private investigation to the public, it also wasn’t disclosing that Karl Hall was selling an office building of his wife’s across the street from the Wild Orchid at the same time as his office was writing legislation to force the Wild Orchid out of property it has occupied for over two decades. When confronted with this glaring conflict of interest, Karl responded with the same tact and equanimity he responded to the City Council with when they politely but firmly asked him to stop representing the city in its sexual harassment case a couple years ago. 

In other words, he denied everything, became defensive and announced that he was “offended.” 

The good news is that the voters will get to hold Karl Hall accountable for his consistent lapses in ethical and legal judgment. The bad news is that the voters won’t get to do that until 2022. Given that even the more politically attentive of us have enough on our plates to remember (did you know that President Trump tried to buy Greenland only three months ago?), the odds of Reno’s voters actually holding Karl Hall accountable for anything are, speaking conjecturally, null. 

Perhaps term limits will hold Karl Hall accountable in 2026. 

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david.colborne@lpnevada.org