Nevada to pursue separate opioid litigation against major drug companies; new statewide distribution plan adopted

Nevada will not sign on to a proposed $26 billion multistate settlement with the nation’s three largest drug distribution companies and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson — businesses accused of fueling the nation's opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of Nevadans — in hopes of getting a better deal.

Attorney General Aaron Ford told The Nevada Independent on Monday that the state would have received roughly $240 million from the settlements — an amount he called “woefully insufficient” — and that the state will instead pursue separate negotiations with the companies “to ensure that the people in this state are adequately recompensed for the damages that opioids have caused in our communities.”

Ford would not identify how much the state is seeking through those separate negotiations but took issue with the allocation model used in the settlements.

“It's something that we believe we have to stand firm on because those who’ve been involved in the opioid scenario here have done damage in our state, and we think they need to pay,” Ford said.

As litigation continues, the opioid epidemic continues to affect communities across Nevada. During a 24-hour period on Aug. 12, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department reported five suspected fentanyl-related overdose deaths had occurred in Clark County. And the Southern Nevada Health District reported that from January to May, there were 92 fentanyl-related overdose deaths among Clark County residents, a 39 percent increase over the same period in 2020.

The state previously secured a higher share of funds through individual litigation in a lawsuit against consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which provided services for opioid manufacturers. In March, the state agreed to a $45 million settlement agreement with the company, after Ford said that a multistate settlement would have yielded $7 million for Nevada.

Pursuing separate litigation does not guarantee Nevada more money. Rather, the state’s decision to not sign the settlement agreement gives Nevada the chance to litigate for a larger share of funds. The decision also means a potential payday could be months or years away, while other states could receive funds through the proposed settlements more quickly.

“We're willing to go fight for Nevadans, if that means going all the way to trial and not attempting any settlement at all, and that is something that I think all defendants in our litigation know,” Ford said.

On Monday, Reuters reported that five other states have decided they will not join the settlements, while another (New Hampshire) decided it would not join the settlement with Johnson & Johnson but would join the settlement with the three drug distributors (McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen). 

The decision comes alongside news that 29 local governments across Nevada have signed an agreement with the state that will determine how opioid litigation proceeds will be distributed in the coming years. The agreement is effective on Aug. 9.

Mark Krueger, chief deputy attorney general for the state’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told The Nevada Independent on Monday that the agreement helps unify communities across the state.

“Every single county and every single litigating city in this state, who has active litigation against any opioids defendant, has gotten together through this agreement to say, ‘we know how we're going to allocate the money fairly and equitably in the entire state among ourselves,’” Krueger said.

Past litigation strategies by the state and local governments were more disjointed — in 2017, then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt said an effort by Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve to involve the city in a separate lawsuit targeting opioid manufacturers could unintentionally undermine a separate multistate investigation and lawsuit.

Speaking to the benefits of the agreement, Krueger also pointed to the structure of the proposed settlements with Johnson & Johnson and the three drug distributors. The dollar amounts from any settlements can be maximized within states by having a large number of cities and counties signed on, he said.

Under the agreement — which was first announced as a proposal by the attorney general’s office in early July — any funds won through litigation against the 61 opioid manufacturers and distributors listed as defendants, including Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, will first be used to pay certain litigation costs. A 22.5 percent fee for the federal share of Medicaid claims payments will then be deducted from the remaining amount.

In 2019, the state agreed to a contract with Ford’s former law firm, Eglet Prince (now Eglet Adams), that could yield the firm up to $350 million, if the state recovers damages of more than $1.5 billion through its opioid litigation.

Of the remaining funds, 44 percent will be allocated to the state, 39 percent will be distributed among local governments involved in the litigation and the remaining 17 percent will be distributed across all counties for Nevada Medicaid Match — the state’s share of Medicaid claims payments.

Krueger said that the allocations for Nevada Medicaid Match are another way for funds to be “fairly and equitably apportioned” to the counties.

During an April hearing of SB390, which created a state fund to house opioid settlement funds, Ford said he expected the opioid litigation to bring billions of dollars to the state in the coming years. The most populous parties involved in the litigation — the state, Clark County, Washoe County and large cities in Southern Nevada — could receive tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars to help abate the opioid epidemic, while the smallest entities — including the city of Ely and North Lyon Fire Protection District — could receive tens of thousands of dollars.

The agreement requires any spending to adhere to the requirements of SB390, which allows for funds to be spent on a wide set of opioid remediation strategies and public health programs. Those projects vary significantly from expanding access to proven prevention services that are meant to stop adolescent drug use to housing people in recovery to preventing adverse childhood experiences. 

Pursuant to that bill, the state also is seeking members for an advisory committee that will help develop a statewide plan for allocating settlement funds.

“There’s different needs in different areas of the state. Rural needs are different than urban needs. Urban needs in the north might be different than urban needs in the south, it just depends,” Krueger said. “So those programs that are going to come out of the recommendations by SB390 are going to work together with the state and the counties.”

Krueger explained that the agreement also helps smaller local governments because it applies to the ongoing Purdue Pharma bankruptcy. The bankruptcy, which is in the midst of a federal trial in New York, was set up to allocate funds only to the state and its largest local governments, Krueger said. But the agreement can help smaller governments, such as the city of Ely, receive funds from the company’s bankruptcy plan.

The agreement also includes a reporting requirement that is meant to ensure funds won through litigation are spent with accountability. Prior to July 1 of each year, local entities involved in the agreement must provide information to the state “about how they intend to expend, and how they did expend, their allocated shares” of any opioid recoveries.

Nevada is not the only state to finalize an agreement for sharing opioid recoveries among local governments. On Monday, Arizona’s attorney general announced that all of the state’s 15 counties and 90 of its cities and towns have signed an agreement that will send 56 percent of settlement funds to local governments and 44 percent of settlement funds to the state.

Ford said on Monday that he hopes to bring in as much money as possible through the opioid litigation to help as many people as possible.

“The point is we want it to go as far as possible, as long as possible, to help as many people as possible because we've been one of the worst-hit states for opioids,” he said. “And we're going to see the ramifications of the opioid epidemic here for years to come.”

Read the full agreement here:

One Nevada Agreement on All... by Sean Golonka

As COVID in Washoe surges, local officials disagree on mask mandates

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey agree that vaccinations are vital in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, which is accelerating in their part of the state. 

But they disagree over the latest step taken by the state to slow the spread of the virus: mask mandates. After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last month that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors in counties with high transmission rates, state officials announced the policy would be binding in the state.

Last week, Lucey, a Republican, went as far as to pen a sternly worded letter to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak about the renewed masking requirements, which took effect in Washoe County at the end of July. In the letter, he admonished Sisolak for not communicating with the county before reinstating mandatory face coverings indoors and warned that the renewed mask mandate was “directly undermining” the county’s message to get vaccinated. 

“We're creating chaos and scares ... and we really want them to be not scared of this but just educated,” Lucey said in an interview. “Go get vaccinated, and here's why. But not, ‘mask-up.’”

But Schieve, a nonpartisan who has primarily endorsed Democrats, has taken a different route from Lucey and pledged that the city will follow renewed mask guidelines while also continuing to promote vaccinations — even if it costs her electorally in her re-election bid.

“If I don't get elected because I support masks and vaccines, then so be it ... For me it's really about protecting people. And I never want to apologize for that," she said. "Of course there are going to be people that are unhappy with me for that. But I just think at the end of the day, I really believe I have a responsibility to protect people."

The conflicting messaging from Northern Nevada’s two most prominent municipal elected officials highlights just how politicized health policy and pandemic decision-making has become, leaving officials to defend and explain their choices to constituents who may not trust recommendations from epidemiologists, health officials and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mixed signals come as COVID-19 cases continue to rapidly rise in the county, with Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick calling the trends “frighteningly similar” to what the county experienced during its November surge. 

Though public health experts have continued to tout vaccinations as the key to defeating the virus for good, the CDC recommended a return to masking to protect unvaccinated populations and also protect vaccinated people from contracting breakthrough cases of the virus. Masks, public health experts say, serve as a secondary measure to protect the population as the vaccination effort slowly continues.

State and local leaders, meanwhile, find themselves walking a tightrope between constituents calling for increased mask mandates and vaccinations and those who oppose them. Lucey’s letter represents the latest dust-up between the state and county, which have frequently butted heads over the course of the pandemic.

Lucey said that in his letter to Sisolak, he intended to call out a lack of advance communication from the governor about the new mask mandate and also draw attention to constituents who fear the government infringing on personal freedoms and liberty. 

While Sisolak handed over pandemic decision-making powers to county governments this spring, the state government retained control over mask policy. Still, local governments have often complained during the pandemic about a lack of notice from the state government before new policies were announced.

The most recent mask mandate included a three-day grace period to implement the new policy, which Lucey said was not enough time to make sure everything was in order to follow the new guidelines.

"I really wish we could have been a little bit more cohesive in our approach than just jumping down one rabbit hole and deciding that that was the way we were going to go," Lucey said about the mask mandates. "I don't want to mandate and tell anybody what they should and shouldn't be doing. ... This is not a fight about masks. This is a fight about public health and safety in our community and if you choose not to, then that is your own choice."

In a statement to the Reno Gazette-Journal, which published a copy of the letter earlier this week, Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney said the governor’s office “always strives to communicate with local officials, including those on the ground leading immunization efforts like the Washoe County Health District, ahead of time.”

Lucey, similar to many other conservative leaders, has focused on the role of personal choice in the overall public health response since the beginning of the pandemic. In April 2020, Lucey, along with other county commissioners, signed on to a lawsuit challenging Sisolak’s restriction on the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients, arguing that decisions to use the drugs should be left up to the patient and doctor, not the government. County leaders later withdrew support for the lawsuit.

In the same vein, Lucey said he supports vaccination outreach and expansion efforts but does not believe in forcing individuals to take a particular action.

In his mind, the government’s responsibility around COVID-19 is to educate individuals, provide opportunities to get vaccinated and grant access to information and data to allow them to make their own informed choices — but not mandate vaccines or masks.

But Schieve, the mayor of a city that leans more liberal than the county overall, said the spread of the virus is a collective, community problem, not an individual one.  

"I've lost good friends to COVID … and I never want anyone to experience that kind of loss. It can be absolutely heart-wrenching," she said. "For us to message to people what we are seeing ... it's not to scare people. It's to inform people that this is the time to take precautions.”

The message is, "If you love them, protect them," Schieve said. She added that mask-wearing, in combination with vaccination initiatives, is what she and other city leaders are focusing on to keep businesses open and citizens safe.

While elected officials navigate the fraught pandemic political environment, they know they can’t please everyone. They also know that they’ll have to answer for their policy decisions and statements at the ballot box.

"This is difficult for all of us because we're making decisions on something we've never had to deal with before so it's challenging, and you've got scared and you've got concerned, you've got upset and irritated constituents that are looking for answers,” Lucey said.

Lucey’s term is up in 2022 and is eligible to run for another four-year term, though he has been long thought to be eyeing a higher office.

For Schieve, who is also up for re-election in  2022, the decision is clear. Though the Reno City Council does not have the authority to implement county-wide policies such as a requirement to wear a mask in all city facilities, she said the city can enforce the governor's mask mandate by following up on complaints filed by citizens, facilitating vaccination events, and promoting messaging emphasizing the importance of wearing masks.

"People obviously are divided incredibly over it. And it's really sad. There's been too much politics ingrained in the entire situation," Schieve said. "I think the responsible thing to do is listen to what are the doctors saying."

Reporter Megan Messerly contributed to this report.

Reno will become first U.S. city to track real-time greenhouse gas emissions in effort to meet Paris Climate Agreement targets

Reno will be the first American city to pioneer real-time energy and emissions tracking in order to help curb climate change, state and local elected officials announced at a press event on Thursday. 

The collaboration between Gov. Steve Sisolak, Washoe County Chair Bob Lucey and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve — who are a Democrat, Republican and nonpartisan, respectively —  transcends party lines and partners with the Reno-based carbon tracking company Ledger8760

“Starting today, we are also going to take the innovative and pragmatic step of actively measuring our carbon footprint so we can use this real time information to understand our actual impact,” Sisolak said in a statement to The Nevada Independent. “This is how we fight climate change and protect our state.”

The elected officials, who gathered at Reno Fire Department Station 11 for the reveal, said that collecting and using real-time and on-demand data will put the city on better footing to achieve the broad goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement while also fostering economic growth. 

“Nevada will now be a leader in how state and local governments around the world track and reduce their carbon emissions to meet the goals set in the Paris Climate Accord,” Sisolak said during the event.

“We are going to be the first out of the gate, but also I think we will be a model for other cities across the country,” Schieve added.

The international treaty is designed to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.” The U.S. signed on to the agreement in 2015, but then exited under the Trump administration. 

In 2019, Sisolak entered Nevada into the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states that committed to honor the Paris Agreement, regardless of federal policy. President Biden recommitted the U.S. to the Paris agreement on his first day in office, promising to lower carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2025, compared to levels in 2005. However, the agreement doesn’t specify precisely what changes need to happen to reach the target.

“The problem is, Paris is a set of goals,” said Josh Weber, Ledger8760 co-founder, “and unless you know what you're starting at, you don't know what you need to do to get through those reduction targets.”

Weber said the partnership across various levels of government and with the private sector equips Reno with a reliable baseline of carbon emission data. The company will collect live energy and emissions data using tracking standards set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from all public facilities in Reno and Washoe County, as well as from certain state facilities including the Capitol and Legislative Building in Carson City, and Las Vegas facilities including the Department of Motor Vehicles office on Flamingo Road and Grant Sawyer State Office building.

The announcement event featured a promotional video showing how energy usage and carbon consumption at a location like Reno Fire Department Station 11 would be tracked.

“What the city, the county and the state are saying is: We're going to show this as it's happening, and we're going to tell you what we're doing to reduce it as it's happening rather than waiting once a year,” said Adam Kramer, CEO of Ledger8760. “They're being responsive.”

Weber said tracking emissions can get complicated. Most other cities report greenhouse gas emissions on an annual basis. Data on direct emissions such as driving, electric grid-related emissions such as turning on a light and indirect emissions off the grid such as flying are often reported by way of different methods in different places. And even something as simple as using energy in the morning instead of in the evening can affect emission levels.

“Where we were struggling was just getting data, even to monitor energy use in our buildings,” said Suzanne Linfante, Reno’s sustainability manager. “What was happening in the past was energy-use would come in historically and we’d get a bill.”

Linfante said Reno was the only city to have a sustainability and climate action plan when Ledger8760 came on board, and that better data will help inform proactive policies that make the most sense while in pursuit of the Paris emission reductions. Those decisions could include retrofitting buildings, expanding electric vehicle fleets, developing more solar energy or adding additional renewable generation. 

Washoe County Chair Lucey pointed to the potential for more jobs in energy and adjacent industries that the new program could spell, including solar installations, building upgrades and green manufacturing. He also stressed the importance of addressing the extreme weather that climate change brings, particularly the more frequent triple-digit temperature summer days.

“We're seeing tremendously hotter summers and warmer winters,” Lucey said. “And those have a direct impact on our community in regards to our ability to service our residents.”

Reno and Las Vegas both have been reported among the fastest warming cities in the country by Climate Central, a group of scientists and journalists who research and analyze climate change data.

“This is about preserving Nevada, preserving Washoe County and our community,” Lucey said, “so we have it for many generations to come.”

Federal COVID aid has given small boost to Nevada’s underfunded mental health services

Vitality Unlimited provides substance abuse treatment in Elko

This story is one in an occasional series exploring how Nevada is spending coronavirus relief funds. For frequently updated information on the federal interventions, check out our federal aid tracker.

While Nevada has long struggled with a widespread lack of mental health resources, the state has recently used more than a million dollars in federal coronavirus aid funds to provide relief to some citizens most at risk from the increased stresses of the pandemic.

The state has funded mental health crisis response teams in both Northern and Southern Nevada, and to combat youth suicide, the state purchased gun and medicine safes, offered training and launched a public relations campaign aimed at prevention.

“More and more, people are now living daily with anxiety and depression because they can't predict what their future is,” said Robin Reedy, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Nevada, a mental health care advocacy group.

Nevada got national attention for its mental health struggles, after a recent New York Times article highlighted a surge in suicides in the Clark County School District. And while data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that youth suicides in the state were at a normal level in 2020, with 17 youth suicides last year compared to 16 in 2019, the pandemic has had an undeniable impact on people’s mental health.

Last year, calls to mental health helplines surged, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline experienced an increase in call volume from 12,000 calls in 2019 to 60,000 in 2020. Call volume from Nevada for the national helpline jumped from 100 calls in 2019 to 400 in 2020, and calls for the Nevada suicide prevention Lifeline increased from 19,000 to 21,000 year over year.

The pandemic has also affected students’ mental health at K-12 schools and Nevada’s colleges. But the state has taken action to combat those challenges.

Using funds received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the state dedicated $1.65 million to mental health mitigation and youth suicide prevention. Those funds were distributed through the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, with $445,000 allocated for youth suicide prevention and the other $1.2 million split between Northern and Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services to be used as funding for their Mobile Outreach Safety Teams.

Pandemic challenges aside, funding is key to a state in desperate need of help for its mental health services. 

Mental Health America, a Virginia-based nonprofit, ranked Nevada last in the country for mental health based on a combination of the state’s prevalence of mental illness, poor access to care and a significant lack of workers in the field. The group also ranked Nevada last for youth mental health in its 2021 report.

“Speaking on the mental health side, I go around saying all the time, ‘we are number 51, we are dead last, and take dead literally.’ When you start talking about pediatric mental health care, I don't know, can you go lower than 51?” said Reedy.

Misty Vaughan Allen, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator, emphasized that there are a lot of details to understand when considering such rankings. Allen said that the access to lethal means, such as firearms, across the state and the ruralness of Nevada are both contributing factors, while Allen, Reedy, and Mental Health America’s rankings all pointed to a lack of resources as one of the biggest challenges.

Other states in the Intermountain West, including Idaho, Colorado and Utah, also rank near the bottom of mental health rankings. And Allen added that perception of mental health is also an important factor.

“Then you have stigma, the culture in this region. Mental health, suicide carry heavy stigma. And so kind of getting those messages of help seeking or help offering can be a challenge,” said Allen.

Youth suicide prevention

To aid youth suicide prevention efforts, the state has used CARES funds on a wide array of programs that included suicide-focused trainings, awareness campaigns and resources for families.

One of those programs was the Reduce Access to Lethal Means Program, which provides safes and locks for firearms and medications to families.

“That is one of the few proven suicide prevention strategies that exists,” Allen said. “And the goal is really to put space and time between that event that might be a young person [thinking] of suicide and the access to something lethal that they might grab… And a large majority of that CARES funding went to reducing access to lethal means.”

With CARES funding, the Office of Suicide Prevention purchased 226 security safes, which are used for medications and firearms, 360 locks, including trigger locks, padlock and gun locks, and 1,696 Deterra bags, which are used for safe, at-home medication disposal. Those resources were distributed to families through various community partners.

The agency has also tried to increase awareness among families about how to keep their homes safe and how to recognize when a young person is struggling with mental health or with thoughts of suicide. 

Allen said that messaging went out through social media ads about reducing access to lethal means, and her office created a public service announcement that went out over television and radio, as well as postcards that were sent directly to families. Both the public service announcement and the postcards were distributed in English and Spanish.

The state was also able to purchase a variety of different trainings for families, faith leaders and clinicians using the CARES funds, including an online suicide prevention training called LivingWorks Start, a suicide treatment training for clinicians and other online trainings focused on mental health first aid and youth mental health first aid.

Allen said that more than a thousand people have attended the trainings since the beginning of the pandemic and that the opportunity to administer them virtually has allowed the Office of Suicide Prevention to reach a broader audience.

“I also think mental health support has become more accessible for families, especially in our rural communities, when transportation can be a real challenge or childcare can prevent them from getting the treatment they might want,” Allen said. “So with telemedicine, they can stay at home with their kids or with their therapy pets and get help they need.”

Many people have pushed to get kids back to in-person classes in order to combat some of the negative mental health effects that come with online learning and social isolation. 

“When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the Covid numbers we need to look at anymore,” Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara told The New York Times. “We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.”

Clark County School District has plans to bring back pre-kindergarten through third-grade students for in-person instruction starting on March 1, though there are also options for hybrid and full-distance learning, but Reedy cautioned that a return to school would not be a cure-all.

“People want to go back to what they consider normal, and there is a certain comfort in doing that,” she said. “But I do think that … even when they end up going back, mental health and suicide prevention needs to be high up on everyone's awareness because even going back will create stress for a certain segment of people.”

Mobile Outreach Safety Teams

In a continued push to connect Nevadans with mental health resources, the state allocated approximately $1.2 million in CARES Act funds to its Mobile Outreach Safety Teams. Those federal funds were used in place of money from the general fund: $427,386 was administered through Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, and $780,972 was administered through Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services.

While there are small differences between the teams’ operations in Northern and Southern Nevada, both have the common goals of stabilizing individuals in crisis and reducing hospitalizations. 

“So they assess individuals and provide, especially related to the CARES funding, provide preventative measures, education and resources. And it's to reduce hospitalizations that add a burden at this time to an already surging number affected by the pandemic,” said Jo Malay, deputy administrator for clinical services at the Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

The teams are typically connected to individuals by referrals from law enforcement after a 911 call. The outreach teams also are part of a greater movement across the nation to connect mental health professionals, rather than just police, to people in crisis.

An American Medical Response Crisis Response Team vehicle
A crisis response vehicle used by the Mobile Outreach Safety Team in Las Vegas. (Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health)

In Southern Nevada, the team is composed of a paramedic and a licensed clinical social worker. The paramedic assesses the medical needs of the individual, while the social worker assesses mental health needs. The team then refers people to the best community resources based on need, such as an outpatient clinic, a crisis counselor or food and housing resources.

In Northern Nevada, clinicians on the team ride along with law enforcement from the Reno Police Department and Sparks Police Department and help provide crisis intervention and mental health evaluations, and they similarly direct individuals to the appropriate community resources and agencies.

Ellen Richardson-Adams, outpatient manager for Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, said the teams also focus on educating individuals about their best options for help during a crisis.

“What else can you do without calling 911? Can you call a crisis hotline? Can we give you the resource or a transportation voucher to a shelter?” she said of their approach.

During the past year, many of the teams’ education efforts have also been focused on the health side of the pandemic. Malay said that the teams have provided individuals with protective equipment and have administered resources on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

However, Malay also said she has not seen the use of mental health resources substantially increase during the pandemic. Richardson-Adams agrees: the number of people reached by the teams remained consistent throughout 2020 and was similar to the numbers from the previous year. Last year, the teams served 5,910 people across the state compared with 5,761 in 2019.

With the outreach teams based in high population areas in Northern and Southern Nevada, people living in rural parts of the state are often left with less access to mental health resources. But a shift towards telemedicine has made providing care for those areas easier.

“Rural clinics have always used telehealth. And so, from a system standpoint, that was really helpful because it was established with the stay at home order,” she said. “So it really just reinforced that ability for access in need.”

Moving forward, the outreach teams will return to being funded by the state’s general fund after the CARES dollars are all spent, and Malay said the focus of the teams is still all about access and providing Nevadans with mental health resources where they need it.

Other federal funding efforts

Last year, the state also used CARES Act funding to bolster its 2-1-1 program, which is a hotline that provides information and referrals to health, human and social service organizations.

While the program does not entirely specialized in mental health services, the $184,00 of CARES funding has helped connect more individuals in crisis to community resources, including addiction counseling and suicide prevention. 

The state also used federal funds from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to create a warmline for health care workers that is run by the UNLV School of Medicine. The warmline is unlike a hotline, in that it is aimed at providing help before a crisis occurs, rather than during a crisis. Through the warmline, health care workers can receive emotional support, stress management and access to other mental health resources. Since June, the warmline has received 30 calls.

Richardson-Adams said that resources like the 2-1-1 program and warmline have been helpful for her because they contribute to the overall system of care.

“Having that warm person to talk with, and talk through that moment of crisis with them...What we've found is they don't normally need to call back because that emergency, or that moment of crisis, is met,” said Richardson-Adams.

Local governments have also used federal COVID-19 relief funds to improve access to mental health resources.

The city of Reno received approximately $47 million in CARES Act funds, and the city allocated up to $1.3 million of those funds to provide free mental health support for residents.

In December, the city council approved a contract with Talkspace, an online therapy service. The contract allows for any Reno resident aged 13 and up to receive mental health support through Talkspace, including unlimited text, voice and video messages with a therapist and one monthly video appointment.

A web page with the sign up option for the Talkspace services offered in partnership with the city of Reno.
A photo illustration of the sign up page for the Talkspace services provided in partnership with the city of Reno. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

“People are crying out for help in this moment of crisis as they experience loneliness, anxiety, grief and more,” said Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve in a release. “No one should be denied access to mental health care based on ability to pay and I strongly encourage our city’s residents to take advantage of these free services from Talkspace.”

During a news conference in late January, Dr. Rachel O'Neill, a therapist for Talkspace, said that approximately 1,000 Reno residents were already using the service during the program’s soft launch for city employees and the police department.

Moving forward, Allen said it’s important to ensure that people in crisis know how to get help.

“Access in our state is challenging. But we know we have the tools within our communities, we just have to help people understand their role, what is their role with suicide prevention and help them feel more empowered,” said Allen.

Governor, other elected officials slam Trump's tweet about Reno hospital, election results

A tweet from President Donald Trump angered Nevada officials Tuesday after the commander-in-chief shared a bogus charge about a Reno hospital and falsely tweeted that Nevada’s election laws were “fake.”

Trump retweeted a post insinuating that an alternative hospital site inside a Renown Regional Medical Center parking garage is fake. The president included a message of his own at the top, saying “Fake election results in Nevada, also!”

The president’s post proved inflammatory, as Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, among others, condemned his attack.

Sisolak issued a 289-word statement and called the president’s tweet “dangerous and reckless,” especially when the pandemic is raging in many parts of the country.

“It is unconscionable for him to continue to spread lies and sow distrust at a time when all Americans should be united during this historic public health crisis,” the governor wrote. “Enough is enough.”

Last month, Renown Health officials stood up the alternative care site inside the parking garage as COVID-19 cases surged in Reno. A Renown spokesperson said, as of Tuesday, 42 patients with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 were being cared for in the alternative care site. 

Schieve likened the president’s tweet to an “attack on the community.”

“It is abhorrent to me that anyone, let alone a president, spout lies that mock and demean patients fighting for their lives,” she wrote in a statement. “The exceptional leaders at Renown have been forced into this unbelievable situation and I commend them for this heroic work.”

Ford echoed that sentiment in his response to Trump’s tweet.

“Nevadans from Douglas County to Downtown Las Vegas, from Pleasant Valley to Primm, and from Washoe to Winchester are suffering from COVID spikes,” Ford wrote in a Twitter post. “Stop downplaying it. Help our healthcare workers instead! For once.”

There were 2,160 new COVID-19 cases across Nevada reported Tuesday as well as a record 1,589 hospitalizations.

After decades of backing Republican presidential candidates before swinging blue for Obama, Clinton, Washoe again a battleground in 2020

For decades, Washoe County has been a study in contrasts.

Take the 1964 election. The overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in Washoe at the time voted to give its party’s presidential nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson, his first full term in office, a little less than a year after he ascended to the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But residents of Nevada’s second largest county that year also resoundingly supported Paul Laxalt, the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon.

A decade later, Washoe would again back Laxalt, by then the former governor of Nevada, for U.S. Senate, buoying him with a 8,334-vote margin, or about 19 percentage points, this time helping him defeat a young man by the name of Harry Reid by 624 votes statewide. At the same time, Washoe resoundingly supported Mike O’Callaghan, the popular Democratic governor, in his 1974 re-election bid by an overwhelming 47 percentage point margin.

It has happened time and time again in Washoe. Over the last 60 years, there have been 20 election cycles in which two marquee races — presidential, gubernatorial or senatorial — were on the ballot in the same year. Of those, Washoe County split its votes between the Republican and Democratic candidates in half of the cycles. 

In the other 10 cycles, Washoe voted for two Republicans seven times and two Democrats three times. Four of those double Republican wins were when the county was made up of more Democrats than Republicans, and two of those double Democratic wins were when the county had more Republicans than Democrats.

"When the state was two and a half to one Democrat, Paul Laxalt was elected governor and United States senator twice,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in the state. “That goes back to the spirit of Nevada, which I think is still alive.”

Most recently, Washoe County was responsible for helping to carry former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a narrow victory over President Donald Trump. She won the county by 1.3 percentage points and the state as a whole by 2.4 percentage points. But Washoe also voted in support of Joe Heck, the Republican congressman, though his slim, 0.8 percentage point margin in Washoe wasn’t enough to carry him to victory over Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic former attorney general, who drummed up so much support in Clark County that she won while losing every other county in the state.

Political observers have a number of theories about why Washoe has been so swingy — and so willing to ticket split — over the decades. They chalk it up to the small town feel in Washoe, home to Reno, nicknamed the biggest little city, where the kind of retail politics that can feel somewhat antiquated in the digital age still matters. They chalk it up to personality, saying that who a candidate is and what they stand for matters more than the D or R behind their name. They increasingly chalk it up to the significant growth of registered nonpartisans in the county.

With politics polarized at the national level, some believe the state’s independent streak — with Washoe County as a microcosm of that — may be fading. Ticket splitting is becoming less and less common around the country, and candidates down the ballot are often tied to the person at the top of the ticket.

Nevada has increasingly been thought of as a blue state, and even Washoe County has swung bluer than it has in a long time in recent years. Barack Obama, in 2008, was the first Democratic presidential candidate Washoe voted to back since LBJ — and the county voted again for Obama in 2012 and then for Clinton in 2016. Last cycle, Washoe voted to support both Jacky Rosen and Steve Sisolak for U.S. senator and governor, respectively — two Democrats from the south — snubbing their Republican opponents from the north.

Though Washoe may appear bluer than it’s been in a long time, Republicans and Democrats alike are taking Washoe County seriously this year — and they have to. Besides the presidential race, there’s a key state Senate seat that if Democrats flip while holding on to two competitive seats could mean Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and Republicans only have a 0.2 percentage point voter registration advantage in the county.

“The Democrats have been fired up and done amazing outreach and amazing work for multiple cycles, and we’ve seen some incredible wins,” said state Sen. Julia Ratti, a Democrat who represents parts of Reno and Sparks. “But it still just always feels like it’s in play. The margins are always close enough that I would never take anything for granted.”

If the year 2020 proves one thing, it may be this: There’s Red America, there’s Blue America, and then there’s Washoe County.

Campaign signs in along McCarran Boulevard on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The rise of nonpartisans

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve is well acquainted with Washoe County’s independent streak. She is, after all, a registered nonpartisan herself.

As a small business owner turned politician, Schieve has witnessed firsthand some of the most significant changes in Washoe County over the last decade, from the revitalization of Midtown in Reno to a tech boom that has brought Tesla, Panasonic, Amazon and Apple, among others, to Northern Nevada. As tech companies have sought to expand in tax friendly Nevada instead of California, their employees have flocked to the Silver State, finding that things that seemed out of reach in the Bay Area, such as owning a home, are attainable in Washoe County.

Schieve said those employees have brought with them a much more socially liberal mindset, some a bit more pro-business than the typical Democrat.

“There’s a pretty big California influence happening here,” Schieve said. “They tend to be much more socially liberal, but economically, fiscally responsible.”

At the same time, Schieve has noticed a growing disillusionment with the major political parties as people find their views don’t line up with the traditional party lines.

“People say to me all the time, ‘I might have a D or an R behind my name but I’m so much more a nonpartisan.’ I hear that all the time. I don’t think it’s black and white,” Schieve said. “‘There’s a lot of things I agree with D’s on, a lot of things I agree with R’s on.’ I hear that a lot. I don’t think it’s cut and dry.”

The data bear out that nonpartisans are playing a bigger role in Washoe County than they ever have. Voter registration numbers are up by about 78,000 countywide over the last decade. Nonpartisans, who have seen about 33,000 new registrations over that period, make up a little less than half of that, which has driven down the share of both Democrats and Republicans in the electorate.

Nonpartisans currently make up about 22.5 percent of voters in Washoe County — up from 15.4 percent in 2010 — with Republicans and Democrats now nearly even in their voter registration numbers, 35.4 percent and 35.2 percent, respectively.

As their numbers have grown, a lot of time and effort has been spent on figuring out just who, exactly, nonpartisans are. Some are what are sometimes called “closet partisans,” those who consistently vote the party line even though they are registered as nonpartisans. Others are voters who split on issues between the two parties — perhaps someone who is concerned about climate change but fiscally conservative.

“I think part of it is they don’t feel at home in either of the major two parties,” said Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Reno. “You can mix and match the issues because they don’t feel that either party is representative of their collective viewpoint.”

There’s a third subset of nonpartisans, those who are registered to vote but not actively politically engaged.

“I think the main commonality in all of those groups is they generally don’t like the conflict associated with politics,” said Jeremy Gelman, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Not registering is a way to express that displeasure. These are people who watched the debate and were put off by it.”

There is, however, a great deal of speculation as to how swingy nonpartisan voters truly are and how many of them are undecided about, say, whether to vote for Donald Trump or Joe Biden for president. 

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found about 92 percent of likely voters in Nevada have decided who they’re voting for; only 8 percent said they could still change their minds. But among those not registered with either major political party, that certainty dropped to 83 percent, with 15 percent saying their vote could change.

“There are a lot of people moving into Washoe County from California. That’s a certainty,” said state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who represents parts of Reno, unincorporated Washoe County and Carson City. “But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion about which way they’re going to vote.”

All the same, Democrats have had more success in Washoe County as of late than they’ve had in the last six decades. In addition to the growth of the tech industry, Ernaut attributes recent Democratic successes to the fact that college educated women just aren’t voting Republican.

“Traditionally Washoe County has really been driven by women voters,” Ernaut said. “So when you take the fact that most college educated women aren't voting Republican, regardless of what party they're in, and you add to that a changing and more liberal demographic, though registration is sort of even, I think from a performance standpoint Washoe is much more decidedly Democratic than it's ever been before."

A crowd listens to Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice Presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris speak outside Washoe Democratic Party headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Looking back through time

Although Washoe County is voting more Democratic than it typically has, it once used to be an overwhelmingly Democratic county — at least in voter registration. In 1960, Democrats had a 14 percentage point margin over Republicans in the county and yet overwhelmingly voted for Richard Nixon for president by 10.4 percentage points.

Republicans wouldn’t overtake Democrats in voter registration numbers until 1984 and still Washoe County voted year over year — with the exception of LBJ in 1964 — for Republican presidential candidates.

“Nixon wins Washoe County in ‘60, Kennedy wins Nevada, but Nixon wins Washoe. Nixon wins again in ’68 and all the way until ’08 it is Republican,” Ferraro said. “So I don’t know that registration is an indicator.”

It’s not exactly clear why the tides turned red in Washoe in the 1980s. Some say it had to do with the increasing number of retirees moving to the county. Others attribute it to Ronald Reagan and the rise of Reagan Democrats. Whatever the case, it became increasingly popular for politicians to shift their registrations from Democrat to Republican.

"You had prominent Republicans like former Lieutenant Governor Bob Cashell, former state Sen. Randolph Townsend or [former Rep.] Jim Santini,” Ernaut said. “When you had people changing parties, and it became sort of fashionable to do that, the whole tide changed in the early 80s in Washoe County for 25 years."

But even after Washoe County turned red, its residents didn’t just stop voting for Democrats. In fact, they still won the county, sometimes overwhelmingly. 

In 1988, Richard Bryan, at the time the Democratic governor of Nevada, carried Washoe County by 4.3 points in his successful bid to oust U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht, a Republican. 

Reid lost Washoe County again in 1986 — though he was still elected to the U.S. Senate — but carried it in three of his four re-election bids, including by 5.1 points in 2010 against Sharron Angle, a former Assemblywoman from Washoe County. He also only lost Washoe by 2.3 points to John Ensign in 1998, though Republicans had an 8.8 point voter registration advantage in the county.

Gov. Bob Miller carried Washoe County by 12.4 points in his 1994 re-election bid, successfully defeating Republican Jim Gibbons, a then-assemblyman representing Washoe County.

And as voter registration numbers have narrowed between Republicans and Democrats over the last decade, Washoe County voters have only ramped up their ticket splitting. In 2010, voters supported Reid for re-election but backed Brian Sandoval for governor — over Rory Reid, the elder Reid’s son. In 2012, they voted for Obama for president but Dean Heller for the U.S. Senate. In 2016, they backed Clinton and Heck.

“In Washoe County I still think it matters how well that person is thought of. It’s not a county that’s going to go right down the line, or at least history tells us that’s not the case,” Ferraro said.

While Democrats carried the top two statewide races in 2018, the rest of the statewide offices were split. Washoe County backed Democrats Kate Marshall and Catherine Byrne for lieutenant governor and controller, respectively, but supported Republicans Wes Duncan, Barbara Cegavske and Bob Beers for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. And the county continued to back Republican Mark Amodei for Congress.

“Here’s the paradox in Washoe County. Last election, non-presidential, you’ve got half D, half R in Washoe County,” Ferraro said. “Rosen wins but Amodei wins. Cegavske wins but Marshall wins. Duncan wins but Sisolak wins. It’s mixed.”

Though ticket-splitting is increasingly uncommon across the nation, it still somehow seems to be possible in Washoe County. Most people attribute it, at least in part, to the kind of small town feel that’s still possible in Northern Nevada.

“I remember being at a Reno Aces game — Dean Heller was in the Senate — and after a game, I turned behind me and Dean Heller is standing there all by himself watching his grandkids run the bases too,” Kieckhefer said. “It’s that kind of access and exposure and interaction that people get that is something that helps drive some of those weird outcomes in elections.”

But the nationalization of Nevada politics may be starting to change some of that. Heller, the beloved Carson City boy who earned respect from Democrats during his tenure as secretary of state, lost his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate by 3.6 percentage points in Washoe to Rosen, the first-term congresswoman from Henderson, after carrying the county by 11.1 points in 2012.

Rosen’s campaign had painted Heller as “Senator Spineless,” the nail in his coffin his hot and cold relationship with President Donald Trump and his waffling on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It was no match for the goodwill he had earned.

“You’re starting to see that creeping of the nationalization into Washoe County politics,” Gelman said. “I think the best evidence of that was Dean Heller lost Washoe County.”

A rally in support of law enforcement organized by the Nevada Republican Party on Thursday, July 30, 2020 outside the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The next three weeks

Residents of Washoe County still have a lot of faith in the power of retail politics. Kieckhefer said that one-on-one interactions with voters can be “incredibly powerful” for a candidate in his experience.

“If someone has a real strong reaction to something that you voted for or something you voted against, walking through that thought process with a voter about why you did something is a really powerful way to connect with that voter,” Kieckhefer said. “Demonstrating you’re thoughtful and you do things for a reason, it’s not a reaction on a party line, they tend to respect that.”

Kieckhefer is of the mind that Washoe County voters are discerning and unwilling to buy into what he framed as the “broad brushstrokes” of national politics that state and local candidates are often painted with.

“I think that the majority of people see through that crap, frankly. You can’t sit here and try to tell me that Catherine Cortez Masto is the same thing as Nancy Pelosi and that’s going to drive my vote,” Kieckhefer said. “That’s not how people in Northern Nevada are going to do that.”

The question this year, then, is how the power of those personal relationships built through retail politics might be diminished by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

On the other hand, perhaps the better question is how they might be enhanced.

Ratti said that where a candidate might have once been excited to get 40 people to show up for a town hall at a library, they can host a virtual town hall over Zoom and a couple hundred people will show up.

“In some ways, the pandemic in our political lives and our personal lives has increased connection,” Ratti said. “We’re not doing the same things we used to, but we’re still connecting.”

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns have made significant investments in Washoe County this cycle. Trump Victory spokesman Keith Schipper said that the campaign has made more than 600,000 voter contacts in Washoe and has had staff on the ground in the county for more than a year.

In fact, the first Trump Victory office anywhere in the United States outside of the national headquarters was in Reno, Schipper noted.

“All the people that have visited, the investment we have made, obviously Washoe having the first field office in the country shows not only how important Washoe County is for winning Nevada, but it says a lot when you put the first office in the country in Washoe County,” Schipper said.

Trump was initially scheduled to rally supporters in Reno last month, but the venue was changed to Minden after officials at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport scuttled the event on the grounds that it would have violated state coronavirus health and safety directives. Several thousand supporters, most of them not wearing masks, showed up to the outdoor rally at the Minden-Tahoe Airport.

At the same time the Biden campaign, which has primarily run a virtual campaign since the beginning of the pandemic, though it recently announced a transition to some in-person campaigning, has been recruiting volunteers, phone banking and texting voters from afar and recently opened a campaign material distribution center at the Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters. The campaign is also now doing lit drops at voter doors four days a week with plans to ramp that up.

Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director and most recently the executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party, attributed recent Democratic electoral success in Washoe County to the effort Democrats have put in to get voters to turn out. In 2018, Republicans had a 1.9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats but Rosen defeated Heller by 3.6 points.

“In 2018, Democrats had a 2 percent voter registration disadvantage and because of the work that we focused on with independent voters, nonpartisan voters, we were able to win in Washoe County,” Mounce said. “2020 is no different. Part of the broad base of people that we are talking to, engaging with, is our nonpartisan voters, especially in Washoe County, but across the state."

With ballots now mailed out to every active registered voter in Nevada, the unknown this year is just exactly what turnout will look like in November. The primary, which saw more than 490,000 ballots cast, the vast majority of them mail-in ballots, was one of the highest turnout primaries in the state’s history.

The recent New York Times/Siena College poll taken earlier this month found that about 42 percent of respondents plan to early vote — traditionally the most popular voting method in Nevada — with another 27 percent voting by mail and 24 person voting in-person on Election Day. This year is also the first year that voters are able to register to vote on Election Day and still cast a ballot.

“I expect turnout to be very, very high, between mail-in ballots, early voting, and in-person voting with same-day registration,” Ferraro said. “We have a presidential race that will drive turnout higher … I think all of those combine to drive turnout really high.”

As unusual as this year has been, it has made it even harder to forecast what the outcome will be next month.

“The ways that we have contact with people are just so different that I don’t trust my experiences the same way that I might in another year,” Ratti said. “I feel less confident about how I even think about what’s happening in our county. And it’s not that I’m not having contact, but the contact is just so different that trying to benchmark it against any prior experience feels difficult, feels unreliable.”

As for the future of Washoe County, those who have worked in politics for a long time in the county are hopeful that its community spirit will persist even in the face of a polarized national electorate.

"I think the natural order of things at some point will mean that the pendulum will swing back to the center in Nevada,” Ernaut said, “because that's what Nevada's DNA is — to be more center and more independent.”

State Senator Heidi Seevers-Gansert drops campaign literature in Northwest Reno on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Election Preview: Real estate agent J.D. Drakulich, incumbent Jenny Brekhus vie for Ward 1 post on Reno City Council

As Election Day approaches, candidates in four nonpartisan Reno City Council races are squaring off in an election that will shape how the city navigates the devastation the pandemic has brought on local revenue, a housing crunch spurred by a burgeoning population, and calls for racial justice reform amid nationwide protests against police brutality.

Well-established incumbents and challengers for three ward positions and one at-large position are reaching out to residents by every means possible to earn votes ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3. Though many of the campaigns are separated by large funding gaps favoring the incumbents, challengers are hoping to sway voters with bold policies and fresh perspectives.

In three of the races, incumbents are backed by significant donations from developers. Opponents question the conflict of interest the donations might present given that the council decides the fate of various developers’ projects, but incumbents remain steadfast in their position that they serve the citizens of Reno, not other interests.

Three of the seven council seats, including the mayor who votes on the council but does not represent a specific geographic district, are not up for re-election in the 2020 cycle. Council seats are nonpartisan and council members receive salaries of about $80,000 along with benefits each year.

The Nevada Independent is releasing two Reno City Council election previews Thursday and Friday giving an overview of the two candidates, their campaign funding standings along with each candidate’s platform and stances.

***

Ward 1 is one of the city’s tightest races, with the two candidates mounting well-funded campaigns as they vie for the position.

J.D. Drakulich, a real estate agent, is squaring off against incumbent Jenny Brekhus. Drakulich and Brekhus advanced to the general election after defeating Britton Griffith, vice president of Reno Engineering Corporation, her family’s development firm, during the June primary, which determines the two candidates running in the November election.

Mayor Hillary Schieve endorsed Griffith for the seat in October, citing Griffith’s “positivity” and experience working with the council.

Even though Schieve said her endorsement had nothing to do with Brekhus and was focused on who would be a better fit for the council and the direction she believes it needs to head, the endorsement was one of many signs of a fractured relationship.

Schieve has not endorsed any candidate since Griffith lost the race.

The winner of the November election will represent a section of Reno containing many historic homes and parks. 

Drakulich is a board member and two-term president at Eddy House, a youth homeless shelter in Reno. He said that one of his motivations for running is that he feels Brekhus neither represents the majority of Ward 1 residents nor has fresh ideas for solving the homelessness crisis and other problems in the city.

He cited his role as a residential real estate agent and work with families from various income levels and backgrounds as something that allows him to connect well with residents. He said his main goals are increasing attainable and affordable housing, addressing problems related to homelessness, developing solutions to the budget crisis and increasing public safety.

“I love this city. I'm a husband and a father, and I've got a little seven-year-old and I really hope that this is the type of town he wants to raise his family in,” Drakulich said. “I've been in this ward for 33 years. I went through the public education system. I feel really deeply connected to the families and the people around me here and representing them would be an honor.”

Drakulich criticized Brekhus, a two-term council member, for lack of a strong stance on addressing homelessness until recently, as well as her recent decision to vote against acquiring the Governor’s Bowl as a potential site for a homeless shelter.

Brekhus, whom the Reno Gazette-Journal has called “a lone voice for precision in policy on the Reno City Council,” said that she places constituents above special interests and makes decisions based on the good of the ward.

Brekhus, who is running for her last term and has experience as a city planner, is centering her campaign around improving the city’s fiscal condition, supporting healthy and sustainable city growth and increasing affordable housing. Since the pandemic began, Brekhus added that she made addressing homelessness a central part of her campaign.

“I'm running to provide continued, independent and informed leadership on the city council and, more specifically to Ward 1, continue the standard that I believe I've established of responsive constituent services to Ward 1 residents,” Brekhus said.

Both candidates said they have been reflecting on the recent protests and calls for policing reform and say that accountability is necessary, but that in the last 25 years, the city has been decreasing funding for the police department and both said budget cuts are not the solution. They both have suggested working with Washoe County to increase the number of social service responders and alleviate some of the stress on the police department.

“We can always enhance how our law enforcement officials better serve our citizens in safer ways, maybe that’s stronger training in de-escalation techniques, maybe they need better tools to de-escalate a situation without a firearm,” Drakulich said. “In reality, if you have a badge and a gun, the community should hold you to the highest of standards, but we can't turn our back on our police in that process.”

Brekhus said that she does not support defunding the police intentionally but has been pushing for an independent audit and review of the police department and would like that to inform future policies.

“There has been systemic racism in our country that we still carry around and it manifests in a lot of ways and it manifests in law enforcement and our criminal justice reform,” Brekhus said. “There’s a lot of ways to innovate there, to build the police department leadership that’s reflective of our population.”

Brekhus is ahead in fundraising efforts with a more than $5,400 lead on Drakulich for contributions received in the second quarter. She received around $22,500 in contributions and spent around $36,800, primarily on advertising and consultants. 

Drakulich reported receiving $17,100 in donations.

His top donations included $2,500 from Cathy Stiser, a resident of Reno, $1,000 from Stephen Hartman of Carson City, and another $1,000 from Heinz Ranch Land Company, which also donated to Councilman Oscar Delgado during the second quarter and to Councilman Devon Reese’s campaign in December. Drakulich spent around $28,900 on advertising and consulting as well as a special event at Homegrown Gastro Pub.

Brekhus has been outspoken on social media about campaign finance reform and has emphasized that her campaign has been largely people-powered. Her largest donation during the second quarter was $2,500 from the Reno Firefighters Association, followed by an $1,100 donation from Uppal Properties, a $1,000 donation from the District Council of Iron Workers, and $1,000 dollar donations from NV Energy, Greenstreet Development and others.

During the first quarter, Brekhus received $10,000 from Brian and Erika White, residents of Verdi, before a council vote on the Meridian project development. The Whites also donated to Councilwoman Bonnie Weber’s campaign in 2016. 

Though the Whites submitted public comment opposing the development before a council vote, Brekhus said that the Meridian project had been part of a years-long discussion, and the Whites’ contribution had no bearing on her decision to vote against the development.

“I never make any pledges to anyone on any votes,” Brekhus said, noting that hundreds of residents had sent in input on the vote.

At the end of the second quarter, Brekhus has the most cash on hand with a little less than $46,000 in her campaign account. Drakulich’s balance hovers at $822.

With just over a week of counting left, local leaders make a final push to increase responses to the U.S. census

Back in May, Mayor Ken Tedford of Fallon issued a simple challenge to Mayor Debra March of Henderson — whichever mayor’s community has the lowest participation in the census by the end of the count has to give the other mayor a key to the city. 

The deadline for that challenge is rapidly approaching as the country nears the Sept. 30 date that marks the end of counting for the once a decade U.S. census. Although response rates throughout the state aren’t as high as officials hoped, the mayors’ moves in Fallon and Henderson may have made an impact as both of these cities have response rates higher than 70 percent, and Henderson is one of only five large cities in the U.S. to surpass 75 percent.

“It’s extremely important that every single household participate in the 2020 census … to help determine where tax dollars should be used to fund education, healthcare, transportation, public safety and other programs that contribute to every resident’s quality of life,” March said in an email to The Nevada Independent. “Henderson is leading the state of Nevada in the self-response rate … In May, I accepted Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford’s invitation to a friendly census response rate challenge and if these results continue, Mayor Tedford will soon owe me a key to the city!”

The mayors’ friendly competition was meant to inspire community participation in the census in a year during which response rates have been much lower than they were in 2010 and officials fear a potential undercount. Kate Marshall, Nevada’s lieutenant governor and the chair of the Complete Count Committee charged with promoting the census, thinks this kind of involvement from local politicians and the community-bonding that comes with friendly competition can only be beneficial to raising census response rates.

“Just think about when UNR and UNLV play,” Marshall said on Sunday, during the committee’s Census Weekend of Action. “There’s a very happy competition, right?” 

More than half of the state’s counties have not hit response rates from 2010 with just over a week remaining to complete those counts. Local leaders across the state have been implementing programs that help them engage in the community in order to encourage participation in the census and educate residents about what the purpose of the census is. 

In addition to its competition with Henderson, Fallon officials have put notices in the local newspaper and set up tables at community pools to increase participation — efforts that have resulted in a response rate of over 70 percent.

“The mayor is taking it seriously and we’ve tried, I guess, about all the tricks up our sleeve that we could think of,” said Robert Erquiaga, the city’s legal and administrative director.

While Marshall has indicated that operations by the national Census Bureau have been slowing in the state throughout the past month, local initiatives have been ramping up as Nevada’s leaders try to ensure as many residents as possible provide information on their households in the last week of the census count.

“That spirit of community and collaboration … is going to take us over the finish line in a better place than we are today,” Marshall said.

The lieutenant governor herself took part in some of these programs over the weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, Marshall, joined by several community leaders including Assembly members Selena Torres and Edgar Flores and Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, held outreach events in East Las Vegas, where response rates to the census are at 29.4 percent, far lower than the overall county response rate that is more than 65 percent.

Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall speaks with Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz and a volunteer during the Census Weekend of Action on Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Nevada Complete Count Committee).

The leaders were joined by census takers and volunteers who helped residents fill out their census forms. Marshall says that the weekend’s efforts in East Las Vegas pulled in around $1 million as each person who completes the census means $20,000 for the region’s budget over the next 10-year period.

Communities with demographic makeups similar to East Las Vegas consistently have lower response rates than more affluent communities, but it is exactly these communities, according to Marshall, that need to be counted correctly the most. 

“The people in East Las Vegas need health care, education, infrastructure,” said Marshall. “So the very people who don’t have time to focus on things outside of food and shelter are the very people we need to be counted so that we can lift up this state.”

While the census may not take a long amount of time to complete, it is less of a priority in busy households where working multiple jobs, grocery shopping, and helping children with school take precedence. 

“In the Constitution when it says life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... those are in order,” she said. “And also, quite frankly, there has been a politicalization of this process.”

Courts have blocked attempts by the Trump administration to include citizenship questions on the census and exclude undocumented immigrants, but according to Marshall and others, the damage has been done and uncertainty is rampant in Latino communities, where people fear any information they give may be used against them by immigration officers.

“I can talk about how safe it is, but when you have people like the president of the United States making a lot of political statements with respect to the census, that distorts the process,” Marshall said.

East Las Vegas and other urban communities have very high Latino populations, but they are not the only regions in the state facing this issue. Nevada’s population is approximately 30 percent Latino, and many rural communities have large numbers of immigrants, resulting in similar problems with fear and uncertainty regarding the census and the perceived possibility it may be used to deport Nevada residents.

“One in five of our residents is foreign born, and, you know, we really believe that the rhetoric that came out of the White House leading up to the census really discouraged a lot of folks from completing the census,” said West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona.

West Wendover is located in Elko County on the eastern border of the state with a population of approximately 4,200. The city’s response rate for the census is 52.8 percent, which is higher than its 2010 response rate. However, Corona says it’s still not as high as the city is hoping for.

“We can no longer rely on 2010 numbers to fund our needs in 2020 and until 2030,” he said. “It's so important that everyone takes the census as we were undercounted in 2010. And we can't afford to have that big of an undercount again in 2020.”

West Wendover has been sending out census reminders with every household’s water bill and implemented a program in March which offered residents $20 off their next utility bill if they filled out the census and brought proof of completion to city hall. According to Corona, the vast majority of those who did fill out the census took advantage of the offer, but participation in it has dwindled as the city’s response rate has flatlined over the last month and a half.

As the city’s response rate has largely settled at that 52 percent mark, the city and its census takers have largely focused on educational outreach, Corona said. Messaging has been largely focused on how census data cannot be used for immigration purposes or to deport any Nevada residents.

A lot of that educational messaging has been aimed at schools, with the hope that students who learn about the census and its purpose will relay that information to their parents and encourage them to provide information.

With just over a week left of the count, the city is expanding its education outreach in schools with public service announcements put together by the West Wendover High School journalism program. A similar video filmed by Marshall is being shown to students in the Clark County School District.

“They plan to show throughout the day in different classes, while the kids are doing their virtual learning,” Corona said. “And the hope is that if the parents are home, they're paying attention to what their kids are doing at school and, you know, parents might catch that and some of that might observe and absorb it and go and take the census.”

Fighting misinformation isn’t the only challenge Corona and other rural leaders face in increasing census participation. It is often difficult for census forms to be delivered in rural areas where many citizens have P.O. boxes. Census forms cannot be delivered to a P.O. box and instead a form must be delivered by a field operative. According to Marshall, the pandemic has “compounded” already limited field operations this year.

The mayor himself told Marshall that he received his census packet but some of his own neighbors did not, and Marshall says she has heard from Lovelock, Carlin, Fort McDermitt, and basically all of Esmeralda County that forms have not been delivered there. As of Sept. 8 in Esmeralda, the smallest county in the state with less than 1,000 residents, the response rate was only 14.7 percent, the lowest of any county in the state and less than half of what it had been in 2010. 

West Wendover is also planning to host a virtual town hall over Facebook in the next week as a final attempt to educate residents and encourage them to fill out information about their households. Using social media to encourage residents to complete the census is something other cities have been trying as well.

“We’re working under a completely different landscape, which is challenging, right? We’ve never seen this before,” said Hillary Schieve, the mayor of Reno. “That’s why we really look to social media because we believe more people are using technology to communicate.”

Officials in Reno have been making use of the Nextdoor app among other forms of social media to spread the word about the census. Nextdoor allows neighbors who live in the same community to share information with each other as well as connect with businesses and public agencies.

“There’s a lot of residents that are paying attention, and they’re engaged,” Schieve said. “We’ve seen in the past, certainly, when we’re working on messaging to the community that those are really effective ways.”

The response rate in Washoe County is slightly higher than that of Clark, at over 68 percent.

In addition to improving response rates in inner-city and rural areas, from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24, the state will be conducting outreach to unsheltered and transient populations. Nevada’s homeless population was undercounted in 2010, and Marshall expects the same to occur this year, but hopes that efforts made by non-profits will at least improve the rate of response.

Counting of Nevada’s transient populations will take place through service providers as census takers are not allowed and not trained to visit encampments and other locations where homeless individuals are known to congregate.

The state has also been making an effort to leave forms at temporary housing units in order to get as accurate a count as possible.

Nevadans wait to fill out census forms during the Census Weekend of Action on Sept. 19, 2020.

Although attempts have been made to further extend the counting deadline for the census, with officials arguing that finishing the count at the end of the month would result in a flawed count, Marshall does not anticipate receiving any additional time. Even if time were extended, census operations have been winding down and would have to be ramped up again.

“We learned [Saturday] that there are only about 12 census takers in the entire state of Nevada right now,” Marshall said. “One of the reasons that I called for the push this weekend is because quite frankly, if we in the state of Nevada had not called for that, it wouldn’t have happened.”

But Marshall says that even while operations have been slowing, she’s grateful for the work the Census Bureau did during its time in the state. She also says she is grateful for the work local politicians and community members have done to try and get as accurate a count as possible.

“I am overwhelmed with the community that we have shown and grateful, and it gives me hope,” she said. “It gives me a feeling that when we come together, we can achieve the things we need for our community, that really we talk about Nevada as our Nevada, right, and we matter.”

Sparks Mayor Ron Smith dies of pancreatic cancer, new mayor to take office in September

City of Sparks signage

Sparks Mayor Ron Smith has died of pancreatic cancer almost two years after receiving his diagnosis, the city announced Wednesday. He was 71 years old.

A Nevada resident of 46 years, Smith became the 25th mayor of Sparks in 2018 after representing Ward 3 on the Sparks City Council for 12 years and serving as mayor pro tempore, the person who assumes duties if the mayor is unable to do so, from 2012 to 2018.

Throughout Smith's tenure, Northern Nevada's second largest city experienced increased expansion and development accompanied by growing pains of rising rent, homelessness rates and disagreements over how to best address the changes in population and need. 

“I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Sparks Mayor Ron Smith. Smith had a long history of service to the Sparks community," Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement following the announcement. "With an eye on growth, economic development and flood control, Smith was focused on helping the community he loved so much."

Ron Smith

During his time in office, Smith focused on infrastructure and transportation needs in Sparks after serving many years on the Regional Transportation Commission and the Truckee River Flood Management Authority, most recently as chair of the Truckee River Flood Management Authority board of directors.

He received the Public Official of the Year Award by the Builders Association of Northern Nevada in 2012 and the SIR ("Skill, Integrity and Responsibility") Award from the Association of General Contractors in 2019 for his work in infrastructure.

"We’ll remember Mr. Smith for his important impact on our growing community, such as his support for transportation and infrastructure needs, but we’ll mostly remember him for his friendship, determination and his leadership in working together on some of our area’s most critical issues." said Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve.

Smith, a Navy veteran that did two tours in the Vietnam War, spearheaded the creation of the Nevada Veterans Memorial Plaza that will be at the Sparks Marina and served as director of the project.

“As a veteran himself, Ron was extremely passionate about this project,” said Councilman Kristopher Dahir. “What he cared about most was that the almost 1,000 Nevada veterans that died fighting for our country were honored, and he wanted to make sure the next generation knew of the sacrifices of those who died for our freedoms. He was very driven to see this project completed. We have every intention of making this happen in his honor.” 

Smith faced controversy in 2019 with open opposition to and an attempt to shut down an event where drag queens read to children at a Sparks library. Smith told The Reno Gazette Journal that it didn't "make any sense" to him and he was concerned about the drag queens taking off their clothes and not having background checks.

Outside of public office, Smith worked in the grocery industry for 42 years and later worked at High Sierra Industries, which works with people with disabilities.

"Mayor Smith’s commitment to serve the public went above and beyond, including his passion for vulnerable populations, veterans of our community, and many other commitments outside of being Mayor," said Washoe County Board of Commissioners Chair Bob Lucey in a statement. "Mayor Smith’s big heart and commitment along with his steadfast dedication to this community will be sorely missed."  

Mayor Pro Tempore Ed Lawson will be sworn in Sept. 14 and will complete Smith's term until the next mayoral election in 2022.

“Ron was a good friend and mentor, and a man who deeply loved his City and community. His mark will be left on this community for decades to come,” Lawson said. 

Smith leaves behind his wife of 40 years, Karen, four children and nine grandchildren.

Details on the memorial service have yet to be announced. The Smith family is asking that donations be made to the Nevada Veterans Memorial Plaza Project in lieu of flowers.

Sisolak: Facial coverings now mandatory in public spaces amid rising COVID-19 cases

Citing a troubling uptick in the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Steve Sisolak has announced a new state mandate requiring individuals to wear a facial covering or mask while in public.

Sisolak made the announcement on Wednesday during a press conference in Carson City, following in the footsteps of neighboring states such as Washington and California that have issued mandates requiring people to wear masks while out in public.

The governor, who in the past has been hesitant to require mask-wearing, said he was concerned with both the rising COVID-19 caseloads in the state as well as photos and videos of crowded Las Vegas casinos with most people not wearing any kind of facial coverings.

“I don't know why, but when (did) protecting our health and our neighbors lives become a political, partisan, or even philosophical decision?” he said. “For me it's none of those. It's a medical necessity, a human obligation. And it’s good for businesses.”

The decision by Sisolak marks the first significant tightening of restrictions since Nevada entered “Phase 2” of limited business reopenings at the end of May, and nearly three weeks since the state’s casino industry was allowed to reopen for the first time since March.

The directive will take effect on Friday, and empowers OSHA, licensing boards, local governments and the attorney general to enforce the directive and if necessary impose fines or criminal penalties. Sisolak emphasized that it wasn’t his goal to heavily police individuals or businesses, but he thought a mandate was necessary in order to ensure a greater percentage of the population started to wear masks.

The directive also exempts some categories of individuals from the requirements, including:

  • Children under the age of 9
  • Individuals experiencing homelessness
  • Anyone who cannot wear a face covering or mask due to a medical condition or disability, or cannot remove a mask without assistance. Individuals are instead encouraged to wear alternatives, such as face shields, but won’t be required to “provide documentation verifying their condition.”
  • Anyone who is incarcerated
  • Individuals for whom “wearing a face covering would create a risk to the person related to their work”
  • Anyone who obtains a service that would require removal of the mask to access their face or nose
  • Individuals at a restaurant or other establishment to eat or drink, provided they are at least six feet away from other patrons
  • Anyone engaged in outdoor work or recreational activities, such as swimming, walking, hiking, bicycling or running

As with the rest of the nation, the number of new COVID-19 cases statewide has ticked up significantly in the last two weeks, with the 7-day moving average of test positivity rate exceeding 10 percent for the first time since early May. In three of the last seven days, the statewide case count has jumped by more than 400, with a high of 462 new cases announced Tuesday.

Julia Peek, deputy administrator for the state’s Community Health Services division, said contact tracing efforts were continuing to get off the ground and help track potential future outbreaks. For example, she said that between June 4 and June 16, about 11 percent of people called by a contact tracer reported attending a mass gathering, and 12 percent said they had been to a “civic activist event.”

A study published earlier this month indicated that one of the most effective ways to stop person-to-person spread of the virus is through wearing a mask. Facial coverings and masks can limit the spread of the virus by preventing outward transmission of the virus from an infected or asymptomatic individual, as well as protecting a person surrounded by people who could be carriers.

Sisolak said he didn’t want to get to the point of having law enforcement walk around and ticket people for not wearing a mask, saying it was “troubling and really discouraging” that some people had made the act of wearing a mask into a political or partisan argument. 

“We're hoping that they will understand the severity of the situation and voluntarily wear masks,” he said. “I mean, every responsible medical professional will tell you a mask helps reduce the spread of an infectious disease. Anyone who’s denying that is just denying reality.”

Sisolak previously raised the idea of requiring facial coverings, saying last Friday that he was asking his medical advisory team “to evaluate potential options for enhanced face covering policies.” Several local government leaders, including Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, have indicated support for a mandatory mask policy.

The politically powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents many workers at Las Vegas Strip properties, called for a mandatory mask policy earlier this week.

Several hours before the governor’s announcement, Caesars Entertainment made masks mandatory for anyone inside its casino properties, including guests, vendors, contractors and employees. The new rule went into effect at noon, with exceptions carved out for when people are eating or drinking. It builds upon the prior policy that required face masks for all employees and guests playing table games.

People who refuse to wear a mask after being asked to do so will be directed to leave, company officials said.

“We are immediately requiring everyone in our properties to wear masks, because the scientific evidence strongly suggests that wearing masks and practicing social distancing may be the most important deterrents to spreading COVID-19 from person to person,” Caesars Entertainment CEO Tony Rodio said in a statement.

Other top casino operators quickly weighed in after the press conference to express support for the new mandate. MGM Resorts acting CEO Bill Hornbuckle said the company supported the governor’s decision “and will begin to enforce according to his guidelines.”

A spokesperson for Wynn Las Vegas said the company “applaud(s)” the governor’s decision and that “face coverings will not diminish the unique experiences only Las Vegas can offer visitors.”

Budget issues

Sisolak — who said this week that a planned legislative special session to deal with the state’s budget would be pushed back to early July — said the latest figures developed by state and legislative fiscal staff indicated a $1.27 billion shortfall for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts next week. That’s about 25 percent of the approved operating budget.

The governor said that once tax revenue collection figures for the month of April are released in the next few days, he and his staff would update the projected budget shortfalls for both the current and upcoming fiscal years; the clearest picture yet of what cuts the state will have to make in order to balance its budget.

Sisolak emphasized “this is not a normal recession,” and that revenues could rebound quickly if everyone follows social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. But he defended himself, without naming names, from criticism offered by legislative Republicans regarding his office not sharing budget cut details.

“It would be irresponsible to release every minute-by-minute revision of this budget proposal without proper vetting by our fiscal experts before receiving these numbers with the hopes of reducing the potential dramatic impacts to our state budget,” he said.

Unemployment troubles

Unemployment insurance claimants who have not yet been paid, sometimes because of questions about whether they should be drawing from traditional unemployment benefits or the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for independent workers, have sued the state to try to speed up the benefits.

Asked about workers who are in that limbo, Sisolak said there’s no easy fix beyond waiting for the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to work through the issues.

“Unfortunately there is not another answer,” he said. “DETR is working around the clock to resolve these issues. We’ve gotten to as many of them as quickly as we possibly can. Unfortunately, the ones that are still having trouble are usually an isolated case that they have a specific instance like you’re saying with their wages or whatnot. They have to be handled on a one at a time, case by case basis.”

Asked if there’s a way to speed the process, he noted that claims can sometimes take 30 to 60 minutes to resolve, and individual claims processors are sometimes limited to reviewing about 12 a day. Robocallers who clog the phone lines are also making it more difficult for claimants to receive help, he said. 

“We are working through them as fast as we possibly can,” he said.

Sisolak also spoke to the departure last week of DETR Director Heather Korbulic, who said she was leaving because of threats to her personal safety. He declined to go into detail about threats to other state employees or himself but said there was a “whole team that tracks threats.”

“It's unfortunate that Heather was put in this position,” he said. “And sometimes people are just — I don't think they think before they go online and say some of the things that they say, and do some of the things that they do, but Ms. Korbulic really should never have had to go through what she went through and we're doing everything we can to keep her safe and all of our state employees safe.”

Eviction moratorium

A moratorium on evictions is set to go through at least June 30, but Sisolak hasn’t yet announced whether that will be extended or how it would be lifted when the time comes. He said he expected the question would be addressed in the next three to five days. 

“We’re still gathering some data and talking to some of the groups that are involved with this and should have an update on this in the next few days,” he said.

He did confirm that the moratorium’s protections would not disappear all at once.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal stories about individuals that unfortunately haven’t gotten their PUA or their [unemployment insurance]. It’s definitely something that we’re considering and we will have a phased in or rolled back approach,” he said. 

Schools reopening and child care

School districts in Washoe and Clark counties have proffered plans on how to reopen that suggest staggering student schedules and mixing in-person and virtual learning. The possibility of children staying home for days or weeks when they would usually be at school has concerned parents who wonder whether they can return to work or afford child care to accommodate such an arrangement.

Sisolak said he was confident that state Superintendent Jhone Ebert would be able to work with districts, parents and teachers to develop individual reopening plans.

The governor said it was highly unlikely there would be any “infusion of state money” to help the state build up its child care capacity to handle the expected increase in demand, given the state’s ongoing budget shortfalls.

Jackie Valley contributed to this story.

Directive 024 Face Coverings by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Directive 024 Face Coverings by Riley Snyder on Scribd