State and local leaders joined Latino and Mexican community members this week for celebrations across the state commemorating the beginning of Mexico’s fight for independence against Spain in 1810 and the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office also issued a proclamation in honor of the tradition of Hispanic Heritage Month, originally a week-long observance created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and later extended to last a month by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. The month of festivities ends on Oct. 15 and includes the celebrations of the independence of other Latin American countries including Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
“Hispanic and Latino communities have made immeasurable contributions to Nevada through their work to protect our freedoms in the military, help feed our families by working as farm workers, inspire our children as educators, lead through government office, fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as healthcare professionals, and advance our society through science and technology,” Sisolak’s proclamation says.
In Nevada, people who identify as Hispanic or Latino are the second-largest racial or ethnic group, behind white people, making up nearly 30 percent of the state population. In 2016, Nevada was ranked fifth among states with the largest percentage of Latino population, according to the Pew Research Center.
People with Mexican roots accounted for nearly 62 percent of the Hispanic population in the U.S. as of 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. The 2020 Census results showed the Hispanic population fueled growth across the U.S., with a greater growth rate than the national average.
The holiday brings tourists to Las Vegas each year, drawn by a variety of concerts, boxing matches and other entertainment. Alejandro Fernandez, best-selling Mexican music artist and son to legendary ranchero artist Vicente Fernandez, and Camila, a band from Mexico, will perform this week. The Las Vegas ballpark will also host a game between the Mexican professional baseball teams Aguilas de Mexicali vs. Naranjeros de Hermosillo.
Events across Las Vegas included free food, music, games and vaccines and were attended or hosted by Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, County Commissioner William McCurdy, North Las Vegas City Councilman Isaac Barron, Mexican Consul Julian Escutia Rodriguez representatives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Events throughout the month will celebrate the independence days of other Latin American countries.
In the north, the City of Reno presented its first bilingual proclamation in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and UNR hosted Tu Bienvenida, a welcoming celebration for Latino students, staff and faculty members, which featured traditionally Mexican folkloric dances, music and more.
Mexico’s fight for independence against the Spanish crown began in Dolores, Guanajuato, when Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla made the call to arms with an impassioned speech on Sept. 16, 1810, addressing his congregation, urging them to revolt against “bad government.” Hidalgo y Costilla rang the church bell and carried a tapestry with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary who appeared to Juan Diego, a Mexican Indigenous man canonized by the Catholic Church.
His speech became known as the el grito de Dolores, or the cry of Dolores, and it is honored each year by the Mexican president at the National Palace in Mexico City and across the U.S. by Mexican leaders, including the Mexican consul in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Mexico declared independence on Sept. 28, 1821 after more than a decade of war.
Below are images from the celebrations captured by photographers Jeff Scheid and Tim Lenard.
Before the emcee finished his plea for civil and respectful discourse, a line had formed along a wall inside a Clark County library meeting room.
It was early afternoon on a Saturday — two weeks into the new academic year — and several dozen people had gathered to discuss an anti-racism policy, now in the drafting stage, that will be under consideration by Clark County school officials. Now, it was their turn to speak.
A Clark County School District graduate shared how she spent years straightening her hair after a classmate criticized her cornrows, saying she looked “too Black.”
A former teacher and school administrator explained how she was retaliated against for refusing to practice exclusionary discipline policies that too often affected students of color.
A Las Vegas High School student, who also serves as student body president, expressed dismay that her academic success has invited what she sees as disproportionate praise because of her skin color and the fact that her father is an immigrant.
Personal stories like these are giving Jshauntae Marshall and Akiko Cooks the resolve to keep showing up to school board meetings, writing letters, making phone calls and organizing town halls like this one. As the mothers of current and former students — two of whom were the victims of a racist threat that made headlines two years ago — they have made it their mission to make sure racism isn’t tolerated in Clark County schools.
The name of the organization they founded underscores their mission: No Racism In Schools #1865, or 1865 for short, a nod to the year the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery.
“I was very proud of those who did speak out,” Cooks said about the town hall. “That makes 1865 say, ‘How do we support you more in this? Where do you need us to show up?’”
For more than two years, these mothers have been pushing for a policy that would take a proactive stance against racism and spell out how race-based incidents should be handled when they do arise. Supporters say it’s no longer enough to not be racist; individuals, institutions and society need to identify and challenge the values and systems that perpetuate racism, hence the action-oriented term “anti-racism.”
But the process for creating an anti-racism policy has not been swift, nor has it been without the vitriol — and misguided mentions of critical race theory — permeating similar discussions nationwide. A June school board meeting devolved into chaos after an argument among attendees broke out during a public comment period. Even the town hall was briefly interrupted by a pair of detractors.
It’s all evidence, Cooks and Marshall say, of why the school district desperately needs such a policy. In March, No Racism in Schools #1865 sent a follow-up letter to Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara demanding the creation and implementation of an anti-racism policy districtwide. It built on what they had requested shortly after their sons were the victims of a racist threat in March 2019. The letter included 17 “non-negotiables,” ranging from community representation and input during the policy’s creation to establishing disciplinary standards for students and staff who violate the forthcoming policy. It came a week after the Clark County School Board of Trustees agreed to start developing a policy.
The policy initiative speaks to the current moment in the nation’s racial reckoning. Police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others unleashed a wave of protests and calls for systemic change amid a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed people of color. Some of the focus has naturally shifted toward public schools, the bedrock of most communities, where the nation’s youngest generations come to learn.
In Nevada, the foundation for school anti-racism policies has already been set in state law. Assembly Bill 371, which passed through the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak this year, requires racial incidents to be handled in a manner consistent with an existing anti-bullying law.
An anti-racism policy won’t undo the pain Marshall and Cooks’ families endured when an ugly Instagram post surfaced two years ago. But the mothers say it could deter similar racially motivated incidents or, at the very least, provide schools a roadmap for addressing them.
On the evening of March 18, 2019, Cooks received a chilling text message. A cousin had stumbled upon racist Instagram posts targeting nine Black students at Arbor View High School. Her son, Corey Landrum, was one of them.
Photos of the nine students, snapped without their knowledge, accompanied text rife with racial slurs and threats of a “Columbine pt 2” shooting. Cooks immediately called school district police, only to be told it was out of their jurisdiction because it happened online. So she shared the post on her own Facebook and Instagram channels as a warning to other parents.
Overnight, the post and related warnings had circulated social media. Marshall came across the post at 6 a.m. the next day and saw her son, Zamier Marshall, in a photo. Before even fully processing what she had seen, Marshall grabbed her phone and began calling and texting other parents. She frantically relayed a singular message:
“Don’t send your kids to school today.”
Cooks and Marshall say a lack of information from the school district heightened an already-frightening, emotional situation. An investigation ultimately led to the arrest of two students, who later accepted a plea deal. But the mothers, bonded by a painful experience, knew their work wasn’t done.
“For me, my life will never be the same from that,” Cooks said. “It’s changed everything.”
The mothers knew racism existed within the walls of Clark County schools, just as it does essentially everywhere across the country, from retail stores and restaurants to doctor’s offices and hospital waiting rooms. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans — 64 percent — believe racism against Black people is widespread in the United States, and that perception is even higher among Black (84 percent) and Hispanic (72 percent) respondents.
Cooks and Marshall had seen Confederate flag imagery adorning student vehicles in the Arbor View High School parking lot. They tried not to dwell on it.
Marshall said she taught her son to keep his distance. It’s a conversation that many Black parents across the United States have with their children, especially as their sons grow into young men and enter a society that judges them based on the color of their skin.
“I don’t teach my children to be angry at people for their personal perspectives,” she said. “If they hate Black people, then let them hate us. Just don’t put your hands on us.”
The racist Instagram posts, however, brought their daily worries to a head. These were their sons, their babies, targeted in a threatened shooting. A lethargic response by both the school district and local police, they say, proved something more needed to be done.
That’s how No Racism In Schools #1865 came to be. The organization’s website describes itself as a “campaign focused on closing the gaps in policies, laws, and protocols that govern race related matters in schools.”
The vehicle for doing so, they believe, is an anti-racism policy. Cooks and Marshall envision the policy holding the district accountable for appropriately handling race-based incidents, tracking their occurences and weaving the concept of anti-racism into the curriculum — similar to how policies adopted by other school systems look and work. They’ve shared some with district officials.
The policy would align with AB371, which builds off the anti-bullying law and applies to all 17 public school districts and charter schools. During the town hall, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, who’s a teacher, said she often fields this question: Isn’t racism considered bullying?
The answer, she said, lies in the definition of bullying. Whereas bullying involves targeted, recurring incidents, a single racist incident would enact the protocols of AB371. Miller gave this example to explain the importance of the distinction: If a student writes “you’re a jerk” on a bathroom wall, the message may elicit a few glances and giggles. But if the writing on the wall includes a racial slur, it affects everyone who reads it.
“So it doesn’t have to be targeted; it doesn’t have to be repetitive,” Miller said. “The reason why this is key in the definition is because that’s why many students — their reports of racism were going unaddressed because it didn’t comply with that same (bullying) standard.”
Cooks said the addition of the anti-racism policy at the district level would add a “second layer of protection” by defining terms and going beyond the data-tracking components of AB371. For instance, she said, the policy should “decolonize the curriculum” by ensuring that students learn about the societal contributions made by people of color, not just the history of slavery. The organization’s vision dovetails with another new state law, AB261, that makes sure more diverse perspectives are included in K-12 academic content.
The policy push, however, has come under fire from critics who say it’s masquerading as an attempt to teach critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racial inequality is woven into the U.S. legal system and other institutions. Critical race theory has emerged as a commonly misused catch-all term by people who oppose any policies that address systemic racism. It has also been adopted as a campaign talking point by conservative candidates in recent months.
Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara and several trustees have declared that critical race theory, which became a flashpoint during fiery school board meetings across the nation this summer, will not be part of district discussions regarding the anti-racism policy.
As far as Cooks and Marshall are concerned, the anti-racism policy must come first.
“I think it’s a necessity, but until there is an anti-racism policy that is actually enforced, I don’t know that our educators, generally speaking, are skilled enough to go there,” Marshall said, referring to critical race theory. “They barely can have a conversation about body shaming.”
While the anti-racism policy won’t delve into critical race theory, Cooks and Marshall say candid conversations about racism and implicit biases — beliefs about or attitudes toward others that people hold without consciously realizing it — need to occur. They also say it’s not an “anti-white policy,” as some opponents have called it; it’s simply anti-racist, which is a mindset they would like to see everyone adopt.
“You can’t do an anti-racism policy without a lens on race,” Cooks said. “There has to be a discussion.”
The Board of Education for Cincinnati Public Schools took that step last December. The southwest Ohio district predominantly serves communities of color, with 62 percent of students identifying as Black and 8 percent identifying as Hispanic. The racial unrest during the summer of 2020 fueled a request from Board Member Mike Moroski and, later, students for a policy that would go beyond the district’s existing one regarding equity.
The Cincinnati district’s anti-racism policy defines pertinent terms such as racism, anti-racism, individual racism, systemic racism and racist or race-based misconduct. The policy, for instance, says systemic racism “encompasses the history and current reality of institutional racism across all institutions and society. It refers to the history, culture, ideology, and interactions of institutions and policies that perpetuate a system of inequity that is detrimental to communities of color.”
The policy also includes a 363-word section describing its purpose, with the first line stating that it is “to create processes that identify any form of racism, work to counter its effects and work to eliminate racist practices and policies from the District in conjunction with related Board policies.”
The policy goes on to list a variety of directives related to communication, leadership and administration, curriculum and instruction, professional development, hiring and discipline.
“Unless you’re calling it out, you’re not going to change it,” Moroski said.
In Cincinnati, an anti-racism working group — made up of students, staff, parents and community organizations — developed the policy based on public feedback. The African American Chamber of Commerce, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, The Urban League and YMCA were among the organizations involved.
The school district’s assistant general counsel, Stephanie Scott, said the working group came together last August and, by mid-December, the policy had been approved by the board.
“We didn’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction,” she said. “... We knew it was going to be a longstanding policy that we really wanted to give some thought and be really intentional so, in doing that, we wanted to make sure that we included ... all of our key stakeholders.”
The Clark County School District has taken a similar approach, creating both an internal and external task force. Additionally, it has brought aboard four people deemed professional experts — Donna Mendoza Mitchell, Maree Sneed, Micah Ali and Shawn Joseph — who have backgrounds in civil rights law, education policy and school leadership. They will be listening to task force discussions and helping draft the written policy, said Mike Barton, the district’s chief college, career, equity and school choice officer.
Cooks and Marshall are among the 38 members of the external task force, though they’re not pleased with the selection process. They have raised concerns about the lack of representation from the city’s Historic Westside, which is a historically Black neighborhood; the unwieldy size of the group; and the inclusion of a few members whom they don’t consider allies.
“Why do we have to be put in a space with someone we know doesn’t really support this?” Cooks said.
No Racism In Schools #1865 has recommended that task force members participate in implicit bias training sessions. Barton, meanwhile, said the district is “definitely having conversations with the community” about the concerns regarding representation from the city’s historically Black neighborhood.
Still, the process has irked School Board President Linda Cavazos, who described it as “moving at a snail’s pace.” Trustee Katie Williams, on the other hand, has advocated against expedited timelines, pointing to the district’s gender-diverse policy, which took 18 months to craft and adopt.
“I want to get it done properly and accurately,” Williams said during the Aug. 26 board meeting.
(The founders of No Racism In Schools #1865 have not invited Williams — known for her incendiary tweets, one of which recently included a Qanon hashtag — to any of their events.)
A development timeline shared with trustees in August sets January as the target for the final adoption of an anti-racism policy, with a first draft coming together in October.
As the policy formation process plays out, those involved in the local education community are keeping a close eye on it.
Former Clark County School Board Trustee Linda Young was the only Black member when her term ended last year. Now, the school board has no Black trustees. Young routinely advocated for dismantling racial inequities during her tenure on the school board, and said she supports the creation of an anti-racism policy. She said it could encourage more candid dialogue about race — a topic sometimes considered taboo, especially in classroom settings.
Too often, she said, people are afraid of confronting issues they don’t feel equipped to discuss.
“When you’re talking about things you don’t know, you tend to avoid because, number one, you’re uncomfortable and, number two, you don’t know and you don’t want to let people know you don’t know,” said Young, who suggested that judgment be replaced with this mindset: “It’s OK that you don’t know. It is OK that sometimes I don’t know.”
Andrew O’Reilly, interim vice principal at Chaparral High School, attended the town hall organized by No Racism In Schools #1865 and Mi Familia Vota. He wanted to listen.
“I wanted to hear what their experience was,” he said, referring to community members who spoke during the town hall. “My job as an educator is for me to be a learner also.”
O’Reilly said he supports the creation of an anti-racism policy and believes it’s necessary. Students want to talk about these issues, he said, and they want to be part of a solution.
And, from an educator standpoint, he wants to see more training about how classroom and school leaders can improve the culture and climate.
“We sometimes have a tendency to think if we don’t see a problem overtly, that the problem doesn’t exist,” he said. “It comes back on us to really know what areas need to be addressed to keep everybody safe and included in society.”
Students may not be watching every twist and turn of the policy development process, but the topic itself isn’t far from mind. Alexa Hernandez-Valenzuela is a junior at Global Community High School, which serves students who are newcomers to the United States. Speaking in her native Spanish, Hernandez-Valenzuela said she would welcome a policy that aims to prevent racism.
It was one of her bigger fears when she moved to Las Vegas from Mexico roughly three months ago. Her parents had lost their jobs during the pandemic and sent her here to live with an aunt so she could finish her education. Hernandez-Valenzuela worried the language barrier might make her a target of racism, in school or elsewhere. She hasn’t experienced that at Global High School but said a policy could help prevent it moving forward.
People who give up their whole lives to move here, she said, deserve an opportunity free from racism.
After the racist Instagram threats at Arbor View High School, Jshauntae Marshall’s son, Zamier, transferred to Liberty High School in the southern Las Vegas Valley. He graduated in June. Now, he’s attending Concordia University Wisconsin, where he received a football and academic scholarship.
A few weeks after graduation, he reflected on how the incident had changed his outlook, especially after watching the pandemic and racial unrest unfold over the past year and half.
“Honesty, it just showed me that (there’s) a lot of hate in the world for no reason,” he said, adding that it really opened his eyes. “I’m 18 now. I’m grown and I look older than my age and (there have) been many experiences I’ve had, like, hand-to-hand with racial profiling.”
It’s a constant fear for his mother. That’s why she forbade him from wearing dreadlocks or being out at night when racial tensions were particularly high last summer following the police killing of George Floyd. She also steered him away from attending college in the South, worried he might encounter even more potent forms of racism there.
Marshall said her rules have created some friction between the two, but she hasn’t budged.
“I’ve not ever taught my children racism. I’ve taught them about it — and have drilled into his head that, as a Black man, he just can’t do what other people do,” she said. “He just can’t. And I don’t care how free they say he is, he will never have the freedom of other men his age.”
Cooks’ son, meanwhile, chose to remain at Arbor View High School. Her daughter, Chasity Landrum, is now a junior there, too. They’re both members of the school’s Black Student Union.
Corey Landrum, who’s finishing up final credits to graduate, tries not to fixate on the past. “What’s done is done,” he said.
Her brother’s experience didn’t dissuade Chasity from attending Arbor View High School. She sensed change could happen.
“I feel like there could be a difference,” she said. “So I guess I really do stay because I’m like, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this. You’re not going to run me away from my school.’ This is my area code. This is where I live.”
The reality is, the racist threats could have occurred at any school. Since launching No Racism In Schools #1865, Cooks and Marshall say they have received regular reports of racially motivated incidents at schools across the valley. The Arbor View incident, though, catalyzed efforts to rebuild the northwest valley school’s climate. The principal, Kevin McPartlin, calls it a cultural turnaround.
Cooks and Marshall have been heavily involved, he said, in helping with training sessions for staff that address how to discuss and handle race-related issues when they arise. The other part is extending that to students in an effective manner, McPartlin said, noting that it’s not a “quick fix” but instead needs to be thoughtful and ongoing.
“We’re a large high school — 3,200 kids — and you can’t just have an assembly about this and think it’s going to fix it,” he said. “We need to get down in smaller groups, and it needs to be conversation.”
The broader push for an anti-racism policy districtwide has at least started dialogue. But the founders of No Racism In Schools #1865 don’t want to see it end there. Cooks envisions youth empowerment as the next phase of the work.
The more students, parents and educators talk about it, she said, the more likely it is that the policy won’t just become papers stored on a shelf.
“It’s more than just creating a policy,” Cooks said. “It’s creating the right policy, implementing the policy, training on the policy, educating the community about the policy and enforcing the policy — and then accountability follow-up. We’re years away from that full process.”
Cooks and Marshall say they’re in it for the long haul. Progress will be measured by the experiences of the younger students aging through the school system.
Marshall’s second-grade son, Aiden, is among them.
Facing ample criticism from members of the public opposed to COVID-19 vaccine requirements, the Nevada Board of Health voted on Friday in favor of a vaccine mandate for state health and corrections workers.
Nevadans employed by state Department of Corrections and Department of Health and Human Services facilities will have until Nov. 1 to receive vaccinations, with certain medical and religious exemptions. The new rule, which proponents say is meant to protect vulnerable populations, comes a day after President Joe Biden ordered new federal vaccine requirements that could affect 100 million Americans.
Four of the six members of the board voted in favor of the amendments to infectious disease provisions during the meeting. Members Monica Ponce and Trudy Larson were not present.
“We obviously don't want to repeat the winter of 2020,” said DuAne Young, policy director from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office, referring to a recent peak in COVID cases and deaths. “But given this trend, if we don't take swift action, we are facing that direction.”
Young added that 95 percent of infections in two state-run psychiatric facilities and 62 percent of infections among Division of Family Services facilities have been from staff. Sisolak has also called the corrections department’s low vaccination rates “atrocious.” Those numbers have lagged behind the statewide and national vaccination rate.
Ihsan Azzam, chief medical officer for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, said the vaccine is 93 to 94 percent effective and most individuals hospitalized with the coronavirus have been unvaccinated.
"There is no vaccine that is perfect," Azzam said.
Many members of the public called into the meeting with objections, including a number of health and correctional employees.
“I can't see why this is something that has to be mandated and infringe on people's right to choice of what goes in their body,” said Paul Lunkwitz, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 21 and a former correctional officer.
A number of callers voiced concerns about worker shortages, a problem that has plagued the Department of Corrections, should employees who refuse to get a vaccine resign in large numbers. Young said the state has contingency plans for staffing in that event, but did not go into detail.
“I also am scared to death, absolutely shaking in my boots, about the potential of having to get this vaccine in order to keep my job,” said Holly Flammer, a Medicaid provider who works in mental health care.
Very few people called in to voice support for vaccine requirements.
“All of the protests and the division — it does not represent all of us,” said Tonya Armendariz, a correctional officer. “I feel that as a corrections officer that I have a duty to these inmates.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is getting a boost through a new political action committee’s significant, six-figure advertising blitz touting his law enforcement bonafides.
The ad, paid for by Better Nevada PAC, juxtaposes footage of “radical, anti-police riots” in other cities during protests against police brutality last year with idyllic footage of Lombardo talking and walking through suburban parks and neighborhoods.
“Joe Lombardo made our rights as law-abiding citizens his first priority. He's a conservative leader, not a follower,” the ad states. “Good luck defunding the police with Sheriff Joe Lombardo as our next governor.”
Nevada, and specifically Las Vegas and Reno, saw heated and at times violent protests against police brutality in the immediate aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — more than two dozen police were injured (including the paralyzation of Shay Mikalonis) while dozens more protesters were arrested or forcibly dispersed from protest areas. More than 24 businesses in downtown Las Vegas were damaged by vandalism, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The ads are produced and paid for by Better Nevada PAC, a political action committee registered last month that has not yet filed any campaign finance reports with the secretary of state’s office (the deadline to do so comes at the end of the calendar year). Nevada law allows state-based political action committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.
According to a spending summary shared with The Nevada Independent, the group will spend north of $171,000 combined through ads placed on broadcast, cable and radio platforms primarily in the Reno and Las Vegas media markets.Lombardo, who officially launched his gubernatorial campaign in late June, is part of a potentially crowded Republican primary for the right to face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.
Though the candidate filing period doesn’t open until March, several major candidates who have already jumped in the race include North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Reno attorney Joey Gilbert and businessman Guy Nohra. Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei are also weighing possible gubernatorial bids.
Late last month, Lander County commissioners approved a $50,000 retainer agreement with Gilbert’s firm, and on Wednesday, White Pine County commissioners approved a motion to engage with Gilbert’s firm “to explore options to protect the rights of White Pine County residents and businesses against outside entities.”
During the Wednesday county commission meeting, Gilbert railed against Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, enacted by Sisolak in March 2020, as he pitched his services to the county.
“What I'm looking for is just to at least open up an interest and see if there's an appetite for pushing back against [Sisolak],” Gilbert told the commissioners over Zoom. “I have all the data, I have the experts, I have everybody to take the governor to court of law, and put my experts against whoever he has.”
Gilbert did not respond to a request for comment made through email on Wednesday afternoon and a call to his office regarding his involvement with the counties.
Gilbert, a 45-year-old retired professional boxer, has aligned himself closely with former President Donald Trump and has openly questioned the validity of the 2020 election results, despite a lack of evidence of substantial fraud. He hopes to challenge Sisolak in 2022 but must first win in a crowded Republican primary that also includes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee.
The commissioners discussed partnering with Gilbert’s firm to explore a lawsuit aimed at challenging the ongoing state of emergency, as Gilbert repeatedly said he had data proving that there should not be any public health emergency related to COVID-19 — though he did not describe any data in detail. He also called the emergency declaration a “power grab” by Sisolak.
Gilbert is representing the group in a lawsuit challenging California’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for university students and another lawsuit challenging approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children under the age of 16. An investigation conducted by Time Magazine found that the group spread misinformation about COVID-19 and had scammed people by collecting fees from them for medical consultations and prescriptions and then not delivering them.
Gilbert has previously filed several unsuccessful and ongoing lawsuits against Sisolak, the state and Clark County School District challenging mask mandates and other restrictions intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — including a lawsuit filed in November 2020 on behalf of Central Cinema of Ely in White Pine County challenging the constitutionality of Sisolak’s emergency directives.
“I just think that this stuff with the kids, and with anything that's happening with them — testing, masking, any vaccines, anything like that — should be a matter of choice … and not the governor forcing any kind of mandate down anybody's throat,” Gilbert told the commissioners.
Gilbert suggested two different options to help the county push back against COVID-19 restrictions: He could represent a business or two that are “tired of having to wear a mask or tired of their employees having to get tested or vaccinated,” or he could represent the county itself.
Gilbert noted that litigation on behalf of the county, rather than a local businesses, might have a diminished chance of succeeding at the district court level.
“We want to sue [Sisolak] as a county, we'd have to sue him in Carson City. That makes things, the stakes a little higher because I don't know how the judges in Carson City would act,” Gilbert said. “I'm pretty, pretty sure I know how the judge in White Pine County would act because I've been in front of him and he's been nothing but excellent, with regards to how he feels that this emergency has just been elongated and continued for far too long.”
White Pine County is under the jurisdiction of the Nevada Seventh Judicial District Court, which also serves Eureka County and Lincoln County. The court’s two judges, Steve Dobrescu and Gary Fairman, both previously served as prosecutors in White Pine County.
In a 4-1 vote, White Pine county commissioner Richard Howe voted against the motion to engage with Gilbert’s firm.
“I don't think we as a county should jump on board with your law firm and get in the middle of a political firestorm,” Howe said.
Following Howe’s comments, Gilbert seemed to step back from his requests of the county.
“I don't care if he — I've got so much work to do. I don't even necessarily need. I just am trying to be available if you need me,” Gilbert said. “There's other firms you could use. I just think you need to challenge this guy's emergency.”
However, Commissioner Ian Bullis said that Gilbert approached him as part of Gilbert’s efforts to push back on COVID-19 restrictions from the state.
“He has been looking for entities willing to partner with him and join the fight, and he wanted an opportunity to share his thoughts with us. And I said, ‘Go for it,’” Bullis said.
The county’s decision to engage with Gilbert’s law firm did not include approval of any specific civil actions or of a retainer agreement with the firm — meaning the county’s relationship with Gilbert does not involve the exchange of any money.
White Pine County, which includes the City of Ely, is located centrally along the state’s eastern border and is home to roughly 9,000 people. In the 2020 election, 78 percent of the roughly 4,400 votes cast in the presidential race were for Trump.
Similar effort in Lander County
Gilbert's proposals have been making headway — but also raising questions — in other rural counties.
During an Aug. 26 meeting of the Lander County Board of Commissioners, several attendees argued with the commissioners and county manager about the purpose of a $50,000 retainer agreement with Gilbert’s law firm that was approved by commissioners during the meeting.
Lander County resident Jenny Martin said the contract with Gilbert seemed “disingenuous,” and multiple attendees raised issues based on Gilbert’s ongoing campaign for governor.
At the meeting, County Manager Bert Ramos said Gilbert’s legal team was being hired for a specific purpose, but repeatedly declined to identify that purpose and said the county had attorney-client privilege with the firm.
“What we're looking into is attorney-client privilege. So we cannot put that on the agenda to be approved because then we've lost attorney-client privilege,” Ramos said.
In response to a public records request seeking a copy of the county’s retainer agreement with Gilbert’s law firm, the county’s recorder told The Nevada Independent that her office has not yet received the contract from the county manager. And Ramos, the county manager, has not responded to requests for comment on the proposed election audit, nor to a records request filed on Tuesday for the retainer.
Gilbert also has connections with the county from earlier this year. In May, the county hosted a “patriotic social gathering” that featured Gilbert as a guest speaker and celebrated the county’s membership in the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association — an organization founded by a former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who has ties to a far-right militia group called the Oath Keepers.
Gilbert was also scheduled to be a guest speaker at a similar gathering in rural Elko County, but ultimately missed the event.
Lander County, which includes Battle Mountain, is located in central Nevada and is home to fewer than 6,000 people. In the 2020 election, nearly 80 percent (2,198 votes) of the 2,765 votes cast in the presidential race were for Trump, and all five of the county’s commissioners are Republican.
Gov. Steve Sisolak plans to revive a mining oversight board — with the power to request audits, review regulations, call witnesses and subpoena documents — after state officials let the commission quietly wither in the six years since it held its last recorded meeting.
In 2011, the Legislature approved the Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission with a bipartisan vote. But the board, meant to function similarly to the Gaming Commission, never fully got off the ground, even when it had a quorum. The board, housed in the Department of Taxation, lacked resources, former board members told The Nevada Independent last year.
Sisolak’s office confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the governor plans to make five appointments to the seven-member panel with the intention of restarting meetings.
Under the statute governing the commission, legislative leaders from both parties are required to submit recommendations for members to the governor’s office. The governor must choose five members from among those selections, and he can appoint two members of his own choosing. Only two members of the commission are allowed to have a connection to the mining industry.
Sisolak plans to appoint Jerry Pfarr, a former vice president with Newmont, and Anthony Ruiz, a senior adviser of government relations and community affairs for Nevada State College.
Based on recommendations from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Sisolak also plans to appoint Jose Witt, executive director of the Southern Nevada Conservancy, and Pam Harrington, a field coordinator with Trout Unlimited who is based in northeastern Nevada, where the state’s largest mining entity, Nevada Gold Mines, operates large mines and ranches.
Sisolak’s fifth appointment, recommended by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), will be Melissa Clary, the office confirmed. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Clary to the commission in January 2018, but her term expired without her attending a single meeting.
The governor’s office is still working with legislative leaders on the final two appointments.
It is unclear how the still relatively new commission will function and what oversight it will provide an industry that carries significant influence throughout state government. Legislators have discussed, on several occasions, doing away with the board, but mining watchdog groups have long argued that there is still a role for the commission to discuss issues with the industry.
Most of the state’s mines operate outside of Nevada’s large metropolitan areas, but they have a significant influence in the state’s rural economy, workforce and natural resources. Reviving the commission comes as state policymakers from both parties are actively pushing for Nevada to become a key destination for mining the critical metals, including lithium, needed in the supply chain for electric vehicles and other technologies that could help address climate change.
In 2021, the Fraser Institute, a Canadian public policy organization, ranked Nevada as the most attractive place in the world for mining investment. The report ranked nearly 80 jurisdictions based on their geologic potential and whether government policies encourage investment.
One of the top Republican-supporting political action committees of the 2020 election cycle is already close to matching its prior fundraising totals more than a year and a half away from the 2022 midterms thanks to a major $2 million contribution by a prominent Las Vegas real estate developer.
The Stronger Nevada PAC, which is led by former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, reported raising a sizable $2.1 million between April 1 and the end of June 2021 — approaching the total amount raised by the PAC ($2.6 million) through the two years of the 2020 election cycle (Nevada law allows state-based political action committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money).
In a statement, Hutchison — who strongly considered a gubernatorial run in 2022 but opted to endorse Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo — said the group will be “fully engaged” in the 2022 midterm election cycle and promised to go “even bigger next year.”
“Our fundraising efforts have gone well, and we expect more Nevadans to join our efforts to protect and strengthen Nevada,” he said in a statement to The Nevada Independent.
Ahead of the 2020 elections, the PAC spent nearly $2 million on a targeted suite of television, digital and mail advertising focused on an open Nevada Supreme Court seat and a handful of swing legislative races — taking credit for assisting with Republican down-ballot success.
Political activity by the PAC has been slower in recent months, though the PAC has run a handful of ads on Facebook attacking Critical Race Theory, accusing Democrats of discrediting election integrity and lobbing several thinly veiled attacks against Sisolak. None of the ads so far has mentioned Lombardo, or other Republican gubernatorial candidates.
Driving the PAC’s fundraising total was a $2 million contribution made on June 29 by Sedona Magnet LLC, a company registered in Nevada in November 2020 that lists prominent Las Vegas businessman Robert T. Bigelow as its sole officer (Sedona Magnet LLC also lists the same address as Bigelow Aerospace).
Perhaps best-known for a decades-long interest in UFOs, Bigelow — described by The New York Timesas a “maverick Las Vegas real estate and aerospace mogul with billionaire allure” — is the owner of extended stay apartment chain Budget Suites of America and hundreds of other properties and real estate developments. Bigelow's company has pushed back against state and federal eviction moratoriums — filing “at least 46 eviction actions in Texas and Arizona and obtained court judgments in its favor in half of those cases.”
As a political donor, Bigelow has given primarily to Republican candidates and causes, but has also made contributions to figures on the other side of the political aisle — including nearly $20,000 to then-Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak in 2011. The $2 million contribution to Stronger Nevada PAC, however, dwarfs the $124,000 cumulative given in past decades to state-level candidates and organizations.
A call to Bigelow Aerospace regarding the donation was not returned on Thursday.
Stronger Nevada PAC also received a $25,000 contribution from Joseph Otting, a Las Vegas-based banking executive who served as the federal Comptroller of the Currency under President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2020.
In the 2020 election cycle, the PAC received several large contributions from 501(c)4 nonprofit advocacy and social welfare organizations — which are not required to reveal their donors. It received nearly $1 million from American Exceptionalism Institute, Inc.
A recent report by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington indicated that Nevada Gold Mines — a joint venture between mining companies Newmont and Barrick — contributed $750,000 to American Exceptionalism Institute, most likely for political activities in Nevada. The Nevada Gold Mines company separately contributed $500,000 to the PAC last year as well.
After more than a year and a half of a thus-far unending global pandemic, colleges and universities in Nevada have slowly tipped the scales back toward the “new normal,” with the in-person college experience largely resurrected amid widespread vaccine access.
But one year after taking the Nevada System of Higher Education’s top job, Chancellor Melody Rose says “we have to remember that we are still not in normal circumstances.”
“I think about managing COVID as this incredibly high degree of difficulty,” Rose said. “And there's no playbook for it. No one has ever done this before in our lives. We can't go to our mentors, we can't go to other institutions and say, ‘Gosh, when you did this 20 years ago, how did it work out? What are the lessons advice for me?’ We are making up the playbook as we go”.
The Nevada Independent sat down with Rose on Monday to discuss the system’s response to COVID, her thoughts on efforts to create vaccination requirements for students and faculty, and how some major legislative changes from 2021 could shape the future of Nevada’s higher education system.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with COVID, and certainly what’s on a lot of people’s minds, and that is the COVID vaccine mandate. In the run up to the decision by the Board of Health to mandate vaccines for students enrolling for in-person classes in the spring, we heard a lot of criticism from some students and faculty that there was no action on a mandate for the fall semester.
Was the vaccine mandate for students implemented too late? Should there have been some effort to get some kind of mandate in place for the fall, rather than the spring?
I would say that on the day that the Board of Health voted to create a required student vaccine, 80 percent of American colleges and universities had not made a decision about the vaccine for students. So that puts us in the early adopters of that decision — not behind, not delayed — but in the early adopter camp.
[When the Board of Health voted for a student vaccine requirement on Aug. 20, 740 colleges and universities had moved to implement similar mandates, according to a tracker of such mandates from the Chronicle of Higher Education. As of Aug. 31, that number had increased to 831. Those numbers are roughly 19 and 21 percent, respectively, of the more than 3,900 degree granting institutions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.]
And so I think it's important to recognize that while there may have been some coverage of the colleges and universities that were really leading that conversation early, they were always doing so with an asterisk. Every one of them was saying, “we would like to have required vaccines for students if the following conditions are met,” right? And you're well aware of those conditions — action by the FDA to fully approve, action by either a board of health or a board of regents, depending on what your state statutes say around that issue.
So those earliest systems that were getting headlines, I think we, somewhere in the narrative, we forgot to look at the fine print, and recognize that they were still taking very cautious steps in that direction. So today, we're among that first 20 [percent] who have gone that direction.
Relative to that fine print, your statements early on did reference the FDA approval as a potential legal roadblock. But that approval still was not in place when the Board of Health took its vote, so what was it about early August that the system was ready to move forward?
I think we have to remember how fluid the situation is. If you look at what was happening in June, what was happening in the early days of July, we really understood nationally that we were in a pretty good position for fall semester, that the virus felt under control, and then bam, you get the Delta variant. And you get the Department of Justice, stepping in to signal that the FDA might move toward full implementation.
So the landscape during a pandemic changes very quickly and in some cases, very dramatically. And you have to be prepared to pivot. And I think that's exactly what happened over the summer.
Are there any concerns at the system level that a significant number of students might disenroll because of the mandate?
Oh, gosh, I would hope not.
I'm a first-generation college student, and I've spent my life encouraging young people to get a degree, and to have the kind of transformational experience that I was fortunate enough to have. So I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those who have vaccine hesitancy, whether they're students, faculty, staff, general public, [I] really feel for folks that are going through those sentiments.
But I think we've also arrived at a timeline that allows for implementation that isn't hurried, that can be thoughtful and measured and well supported by the evidence. So certainly, my hope is that we don't lose a single student over the vaccine requirement.
And I think on the other side of the fence, you might retain some students who were worried about the campus not being vaccinated.
The agenda for next week’s regents meeting includes an item that, if approved, would give your office the ability to draft a system wide COVID vaccine mandate for employees. But state employees, including NSHE employees, are already included under a state policy that requires either proof of vaccination or weekly COVID testing.
Do you think there should be a faculty mandate? And if so, why do you think that NSHE should go one step further in implementing such a mandate?
I'd actually like to back up your question and speak first to the governor's plan for employees. Because as we all know, for the past year and a half, most of the COVID policy has been guided by our governor and our role at NSHE has been to interpret that guidance for a campus application and provide guidance and make sure that we are in alignment with his direction.
So I just want to pause because I have to give credit to my colleagues who are literally working around the clock right now to implement the governor's vision for “vax or test” for employees. And there's a tremendous amount of infrastructure that has to be created in order to fully adhere to that directive.
In fact, today, all employees across NSHE institutions will be receiving a confidential notice from their HR department about their vaccine status that we have on file to allow us to clean up that data, if there are any errors in that, before we move forward to asking unvaccinated folks to test.
[An initial state deadline to require vaccination proof or testing for NSHE employees was delayed to the end of August, back from Aug. 15, to accommodate internal HR changes.]
So with that as the backdrop, and we certainly hope that through that direction from the governor, that more Nevadans on our campuses will get themselves vaccinated and will be safe and be able to protect face to face learning, as well as our economy. But the issue of employee vaccines is again, one that is a national conversation.
This is uncharted waters. And it's important to recognize that when a governing body is considering something that is unprecedented, doing so through shared governance, through inclusion, listening to all stakeholders is a vital component to getting the policy.
I think having this on the board's agenda in September is appropriate. It is timely, given the decision around students, that if we were going to say, “Gosh, we all need to be in this together,” doing so on the same timeline is prudent.
The system’s budgets came out of this year’s legislative session a bit mixed, with more than $93 million in restored money for positions held-vacant through the pandemic, but another $76 million in cuts to operating budgets.
One outstanding piece of the state’s budget picture is hundreds of millions in additional federal aid provided through the American Rescue Plan. What is your sense that that money could be used to make NSHE’s budget whole? And why, if it all, should lawmakers consider increasing higher ed budgets when they come back in 2023?
I am a fierce advocate for making our budgets whole, and let me give a few more pieces of context to our budgets. So I have always said in higher education, a flat budget is a down budget, because your expenses are going to increase. So we need to recover that $76 million, because those are dollars that go to student services directly. This is money for advising, this is money for health centers, this is money for more instruction, so that you have a good student teacher ratio across the board. These dollars are about student success.
It's also important to understand that our expenditures went up during the pandemic, not down because of all of the mitigation efforts that we had to go through. Student revenues went down, of course, and auxiliary revenues went down.
And beyond that, to remember that another one of our functions is research and development. So there's a multiplier effect, when you invest in our research infrastructure, our labs, etc., our research faculty, they create tech transfer, they create new aspects of our economy that diversify our economy, so that the next time we're faced with a downturn of this magnitude, we have a more diversified economy than the one we had entering march of 2020.
So those are some of the reasons. And I would say about the one-time monies that you're referring to, our conversation internally within the Council of Presidents is really, “How do we approach those one-time monies,” whether they're coming in through the state, or whether they're potential federal earmark opportunities. This is a once-in-a-career opportunity for us to create lasting investment in our students, staff and faculty — oftentimes through infrastructure, because one-time dollars typically can't be used for operating, because that money is going to eventually evaporate.
Lawmakers have long criticized the transparency of NSHE’s budget, including in the 2021 session, when Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) described the system’s budget frequently as “behind a curtain.” How would you respond to those criticisms?
I would push back to some degree because I also think Assemblywoman Carlton gave us a lot of compliments this session. And in fact, on the record, complimented [NSHE Chief Financial Officer] Andrew Clinger, who did a masterful job presenting our budget, and thanked him for his additional transparency and availability. And the feedback we got from many legislators was that it felt like a new day at NSHE, that there were new relationships forming, and that this was a positive direction that we would need to continue to move into.
And in point of fact, I actually welcome the state's audit of NSHE [this year, lawmakers passed a bill, AB416, that authorized an audit of non-state funded NSHE budgets dating back to 2019]. In fact, I was present about a month ago for the initial meeting with the auditors and my NSHE team, and I really welcome their exploration. We're looking forward to that, and participating in that audit, because I think that that will be the definitive word. I think that having that audit completed collaboratively, will put this question to rest.
As a function of another bill, AB450, it’s possible that lawmakers may seek to revise the system’s funding formula in 2023. The last time the funding formula was debated in Carson City, those deliberations became a major source of tension between NSHE and legislators. If we do have that discussion again in 2023, what’s changed?
First of all, redoing a funding formula is not for the faint of heart, no matter who does it, and no matter when they do it — I've been through that in another state. It's a challenging environment.
So I think we just have to appreciate the fact that that's complex. It's tense, because institutions don't want to lose out in the changes. And obviously, I would be a fierce advocate for all of the institutions advancing their position.
So I think we just have to appreciate the circumstances. What I would say is that so much has changed in the 10 years since the funding formula was established. We've gone through the two worst economic downturns of our entire lives in 100 years, we've gone through a pandemic, the industry of higher education is going through humongous disruption and transformation. And we're really being called, appropriately called, to advance our workforce efforts and elevate them to a new position.
A few things that I think are very hopeful about how the conversation would go. One, of course, is that we do have AB450. And that committee may, in fact, ask for a funding formula revision. I don't know yet, I mean, we haven't populated the committee, and it hasn't met yet. But certainly that is a potential outcome.
Secondly, I will be presenting to the board in a couple of weeks, also, our vision for statewide strategic planning. And I think this is a critical component in answering your question of, you know, why would people get along better? Part of the beauty of going through a strategic planning process is you invite everyone to the table. So the vision for strategic planning that I'll present to the board and seek their input on in a few weeks, is what I would affectionately refer to as a “y'all come” strategic planning process.
We will also, as an ancillary benefit, be developing friends and advocates. And so that if we went into the ‘23 [legislative] session with a request, say, for a funding formula revision or any other request, the concept would be that we would have developed the advocacy and the support for that request very intentionally in advance.
AB450 is broadly tasked with putting together an interim committee to study the alignment between NSHE’s community colleges, their funding and their governance, and the state’s workforce development goals. However, the language of “alignment” presents a question of the negative, that there’s a misalignment in existing programs. Do you think that is the case?
I think that our [community college] campuses, and I would include Nevada State College in this as well, which was formed for the very purpose of workforce, teachers and nurses predominantly, I would say that there are tremendous things happening in workforce on all of our campuses. What has not been done, to my knowledge, is really aligning the data about what is needed for workforce, and doing a gap analysis with that data against what we are currently offering.
Under [Vice Chancellor for Workforce Development Caleb Cage’s] direction, we are already processing some of that data working very closely with [the Governor’s Office of Economic Development] to collect what they have and surfacing that so that we can map it onto our existing certificates, badges, associate's degrees and beyond. And that crosswalk is the essential component to understanding if there's a gap somewhere.
And so if there are gaps that are surfaced through that data collection, that will provide us the direction we need to refocus or add things that are new for new industries that are just coming online. But it also will inform the funding conversation. And I think this is a critical component, that's important for the public to understand is that many of our workforce efforts that are non-credit bearing, they don't result in a degree [and] are not funded through the state appropriation.
And so if we want to change that, if we want to increase our supply of those opportunities, those learning opportunities, one solution for doing that is to fund it.
Looking at the system’s diversity, there is a wide gap between the diversity of faculty and students at NSHE institutions. As of 2018, NSHE’s own data show 67 percent of all employees were white, while just 43 percent of students were white. What’s the mechanism by which the system actually closes that gap?
Well, part of it is about changing the conversation and creating intentionality. I've seen this successfully happen at other institutions. And I think creating an intentionality and creating a plan, where we are holding ourselves accountable to the outcomes will be absolutely critical.
And [it’s] recognizing that these things don't happen overnight. And we have a team from NSHE, participating in a national-level conversation with other systems to share best practices. And the first thing we're doing, of course, is collecting the data so that we know exactly where are the gaps, so that we can hold ourselves accountable for measurable improvements over time.
And so then that gets to the strategies, right? How do you get there? How do you get a faculty and a staff that again, mirror our student bodies today and our student bodies of the future, because they're going to continue to become increasingly diverse. And that's, you know, there's no silver bullet, right?
What I'll tell you is one of the techniques that I saw work very effectively at one of the institutions in Oregon, when I was Chancellor there, and that was on one campus, we had, at the time, a [Carnegie R1 very high research activity] institution focused on hiring senior faculty of color. So these are folks who are hired in with tenure. And then they become mentors, to the young folks coming up behind them, which I think changes the conversation.
Now, I will tell you, that's an expensive strategy. And it's expensive because it costs a lot more to hire a senior professor than an assistant professor. So those are the kinds of things that our task force will be looking at, and analyzing and evaluating what makes sense for Nevada, what makes sense for our institutions.
At a Clark County Commission special meeting in July, Trinh Dang, the executive director of Southern Nevada’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, made a simple request — could the county invest some of its share of funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) into expanded mental health services?
“We are understaffed, underfunded, but there is a huge need in our community,” Dang said. “Our system is just broken in general.”
In meetings held from Las Vegas to Reno to Elko, residents and representatives of myriad nonprofits have discussed the significant damages caused by the pandemic and how the one-time windfall of federal aid dollars can best be spent to address long-term community needs, including affordable housing, public health and water and broadband infrastructure.
President Joe Biden signed the landmark, $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law in March, delivering more than $6.7 billion in federal relief to Nevada (the state’s general fund biennial budget is roughly $8.7 billion). The majority of those federal funds ($1.1 billion in general aid for local governments and $2.7 in state general aid) can be spent with broad flexibility through the end of 2024.
Since July, officials have sought to gather feedback on spending those general aid dollars through surveys and community meetings, in accordance with the U.S. Treasury’s stated emphasis on public input, transparency and accountability.
But even with a lengthy timeline for spending, the pressure is on to garner responses now. While the state will collect ideas from the community through October, counties must submit broad spending plans to the U.S. Treasury by Aug. 31. Other local agencies, including school districts, must submit initial plans by early September.
The focus on public input marks a significant departure from the more top-down process for how previous coronavirus relief dollars were used by state leaders to respond to the challenges of the pandemic. That approach drew criticism from lawmakers, including questions about why the City of Las Vegas spent the majority of its relief funds to maintain city employee salaries.
“While it may be tempting to try and spend this money quickly, make headlines and get it out there, we have responsibility to make sure that this money is invested deliberately and intentionally, so that we can build a better lifestyle, a better Nevada for not just us but for generations to come,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said at an ARP-focused event in Las Vegas on Aug. 3.
In an interview with The Nevada Independent in late July, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones said ARP funds can be used to address long-term needs because immediate needs were addressed using dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal relief package signed into law in March 2020 that brought more than $1.2 billion to the state government and sent other help directly to individuals and businesses.
“I think that we were able to use those CARES Act dollars wisely to address a lot of those immediate concerns,” Jones said. “So I do think we're more focused on sort of a longer term vision of how we address public health and infrastructure in our community.”
Some long-term priorities have already been decided. At an August meeting of the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, lawmakers appropriated roughly $700 million of the state’s ARP general aid — much of which was authorized by lawmakers earlier this year. But even with those funds allocated, state officials, legislators and local government officials still have roughly $3 billion in ARP funds to spend over the next several years.
From crowded county commission meetings to small, in-person events in rural communities, here’s how Nevada leaders are eliciting feedback on the state’s most pressing needs.
In Southern Nevada, the Clark County commissioners started the process early. They held a series of “community workshops” beginning on July 13, with meetings focused on hard-hit communities, affordable housing, small businesses, health and infrastructure. On top of that, commissioners held smaller town hall meetings within their own districts.
Jones, whose district encompasses portions of Enterprise, Paradise, Spring Valley and Winchester west of Interstate-15, as well as rural areas in the southwest part of the county, noted the new focus on gathering feedback before spending.
“The ARPA legislation really encouraged the local governments, state governments to get public input on how the dollars should be spent, whereas CARES Act was more prescriptive in terms of how it could be used,” Jones said. “The county just wanted to be on the front end, soliciting information from the public.”
So far, Clark County commissioners have heard a laundry list of spending ideas, primarily from nonprofits.
Fuilala Riley, president of HELP of Southern Nevada, a social services agency that helps people gain housing access, urged the commissioners to spend funds on affordable housing.
“Preserve the affordable housing units we currently have at all costs,” Riley said at a July meeting. “Please create more affordable housing units, increase subsidized housing programs, and then continue and create programs that keep people housed, like rental and utility assistance.”
At another workshop less than a week later, similar groups asked for public health funding.
Andrew Sierra, an organizing manager for the Nevada Conservation League, said improvements to air quality would help combat climate change and address health issues prevalent in minority communities.
“This poses a significant health [risk] towards low-income and Black and brown communities, especially considering that they are the ones who suffer the brunt of the climate crisis,” Sierra said.
Even as those ideas continue to roll in, the level of community engagement has ranged from robust to minimal at Clark County’s meetings.
While scores of people attended the community workshops at the county’s government center in Las Vegas, other meetings led by individual commissioners drew much smaller crowds of fewer than 10 people.
In other parts of the state, ideas and input on spending decisions have rolled in even more slowly.
County-level conversations in Washoe County about the funds did not officially start until a commission meeting in mid-August, nearly a month after Clark County started its process.
Though most of the meeting’s public comments were from Washoe County residents upset with the pandemic-related mask mandate — a common occurrence throughout ARP meetings — several attendees said they would like to see ARP funds allocated toward affordable housing and wraparound services meant to help youth and families that might include mental health treatment and case management.
“Making sure that we take a look at more affordable housing, that's extremely important here within Washoe County, especially with the growth that we're experiencing,” Benjamin Challinor Mendez, who serves as policy director for the social justice nonprofit Faith in Action Nevada, said during the meeting.
State listening tour
While counties gather feedback on pots of federal relief funds ranging from less than $1 million in Eureka County to more than $440 million in Clark County, the state has taken a broader approach to gathering ideas on its more than $2 billion in general aid.
During the first few weeks of the tour, Conine has presented information to county and city officials, from the Pershing County Commission to the North Las Vegas City Council, and has met with a variety of community groups, including business owners in Reno, farmers in Fallon and members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Schurz.
At a state-hosted event at the Yerington Food Pantry on Aug. 13, Conine asked a group of about 15 local residents how they want to see federal relief funds spent.
Gathered in a small circle around Conine, some people said they thought enhanced employment benefits were leading to worker shortages. Others, including 77-year-old Troyanne Cada of Silver Springs, said the county lacked affordable housing and child care options. A few attendees said students need more social support at schools.
“We need a lot of housing for these homeless people,” Cada said. “We need some reasonable rental homes for the people that, you know, they want to rent and can't afford to buy.”
After one woman said that every school should have a social worker, 75-year-old Jerry Harris of Yerington shared the story of her grandson who was abused.
“I'd like to see somebody professional there because he said, ‘I couldn't talk to my teacher because I didn't want to go to foster care, grandma,’” Harris said. “These little kids are our future. They need help.”
John Fullenwider, a minister who lives in Yerington, told The Nevada Independent after the meeting that he hopes to see ARP funds invested in water infrastructure. The residents of the city have been dealing with the effects of groundwater pollution from a nearby copper mine over the past several years.
“I’m hoping some of the money will be allocated to water to clean up some of our water waste,” Fullenwider said. “People are drinking poisonous water, and it’s not good.”
In other rural communities, residents are also hoping for some funds to be allocated towards water infrastructure. On the state’s listening tour, Conine met with farmers at Lattin Farms in Fallon, where attendees discussed how to better use water for food production, The Fallon Post reported.
The City of Fernley in rural Lyon County has already put those ideas into its ARP spending plans. The city’s plans — shared at a city council meeting on Aug. 4 — dedicate $8 million in ARP funds to support capital projects that improve the city’s wastewater infrastructure.
Other sources of input
While many county and state meetings have been used to gauge public opinion and gather ideas, some ARP meetings have focused on more particular groups of Nevadans, such as students in Clark County or Latinos residing in Reno.
At a Clark County School District (CCSD) town hall meeting on Aug. 18, student panelists discussed the difficulties they faced while learning online last year and offered advice for the best uses of ARP funding. Chief among them: mental health services.
One student suggested a dedicated mental health week at school, while another said it would be helpful to have more non-academic extracurricular activities that could help students form social connections and provide a mental break from school.
Students from Global Community High School, which serves students who are new to the country, also requested transportation funding, as CCSD currently does not provide transportation to the school, which forces some students to take Regional Transportation Commission buses each day. District officials have said they’re working on transportation solutions for students and have promised buses will be provided when Global’s new school opens next year.
At a roundtable event in Reno on Aug. 24, Latinos called on the state to distribute the federal funds to help small local businesses, create more affordable housing, increase access to interpretation services and invest in local infrastructure by adding more crosswalks, streetlights and parks to low-income areas.
“In order for the economy to succeed, we need to invest in small business,” Jose Velasquez, who owns A Toda Madre tattoo shop, said in Spanish during an interview with Luis Latino from KTVN. “Small business is like the train that needs to keep going, because at the end of the day, large corporations have millions of dollars but small businesses are hurt.”
State and local governments also have gathered a vast amount of input online.
Through a statewide website that received hundreds of submissions through early August, people have taken a survey to share their thoughts on how the ARP funds should be spent. Clark County also has a survey for spending ideas, which already has garnered more than 3,200 responses.
Different plans for spending
As community meetings continue across the state, counties and other local governments are on their own paths to developing plans for allocating their share of ARP funds.
Carson City and Fernley, the most populous city in rural Lyon County, each have developed plans for spending that involve directing a large chunk of their ARP funds to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, including Fernley’s plans for a community response center that will be used for COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution.
In populous, urban Clark County, the county’s initial plans — assembled by local government consulting firm Management Partners and presented at a county meeting on Aug. 17 — blend different approaches by seeking to address both short- and long-term needs.
Meanwhile, the state has mostly relied on a long-term approach in developing its plans. In mid-July, the governor’s office entered into a contract with Las Vegas-based consulting firm Purdue Marion, valued at roughly $763,000. Details from the contract reveal plans for state leaders to give 70 presentations to elected officials and boards across the state, as well plans for 44 other community events, including events specifically created for Hispanic and other minority communities. The contract calls for the firm to plan and promote those events, including four months of radio and television advertising.
“More money has come into the state through the American Rescue Plan, the bills that preceded it and potentially the bills that follow it than has ever flown into the state at one time,” Conine told the Washoe County Commission in August. “And that gives us a chance to fix some of these long-term systemic issues.”
Reconciling the different approaches
As city and county governments develop their own spending plans, state officials are also concerned that the many different pots of ARP funding may lead to a duplication of efforts.
Conine emphasized that the process for figuring out how to spend the federal relief dollars is complex, with more than 100 different streams of funding coming into Nevada from the American Rescue Plan and the possibility for billions more in federal dollars to come to the state from other federal spending bills.
“This is about collecting all of the need, resourcing that need — so it's not just an idea, but a plan — and then being ready for it when future dollars come,” Conine said.
Local governments and agencies also are working on different timelines. Counties must submit an interim report — that includes broad spending ideas by category — to the U.S. Treasury by Aug. 31. School districts must submit expenditure plans by Sept. 10.
The state has more flexibility, with funds spread across different accounts, including a holding account within the governor’s office and the state general fund.
Synthesizing the ideas
Even with roughly a quarter of the state’s general aid already allocated, Conine said the state’s listening tour is playing a vital role in how the state will spend billions of dollars over the coming years.
“[We] wanted informed spending priorities, not just because that's the direction from the White House and the language in the Treasury guidance, but because we want to make sure that communities who have been hit hardest have the option to figure out how to spend this money,” Conine said at the Washoe County meeting.
Meanwhile, Clark County’s consultants have already presented the county with the culmination of weeks of feedback.
Synthesizing all of the information — from county workshops, commissioner town halls, thousands of survey responses and hundreds of preliminary applications for expenditures — Management Partners developed a plan consisting of roughly four pages of recommendations and prioritizes affordable housing, public health, support for local businesses and services for children.
The firm’s guidance includes recommended allocations for a wide range of categories, including $90 million for public health and $2 million for infrastructure. But the plan remains a broad overview — those recommendations do not yet break down further into specific expenditures for government projects and services.
Purdue Marion’s contract calls for a similar plan that can be narrowed to a list of specific spending ideas, and Conine has said multiple times that all ideas the state receives will eventually be released publicly.
“At the end of that process, through the help of the Legislature, we end up with one plan for housing statewide — obviously, there'll be different components that are geographic — one plan for economic development, one plan for increasing mental and behavioral health services, one plan for et cetera,” Conine said at the Washoe County meeting.
As Nevadans continue to reiterate similar priorities for spending — affordable housing, public health, the economic recovery and water infrastructure — Conine and other state leaders are maintaining an open invitation for feedback.
“Our suggestion to everyone, to Nevadans watching, is tell us what you need, tell us how you would fix it,” Conine said.
Tim Lenard, Jackie Valley and Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez contributed to this story.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the Biden Administration's most recent pause on evictions, Nevada housing advocates and state officials had one message to share: Do not panic.
Though the high court’s late Thursday decision places hundreds of thousands of tenants across the country at risk of eviction amid a slow rollout of federal rent relief funds tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, tenants in Nevada are still protected by AB486, Nevada Legal Services Senior Attorney Daniel Hansen said. The law, passed during the 2021 legislative session, aims to ensure that landlords do not evict individuals because of backlogs in rental aid disbursement.
"For the most part, AB486 does cover basically everything the CDC moratorium did, and in some cases is a stronger protection than the CDC moratorium was," Hansen said in an interview Friday. "It did create additional requirements because it adds mediation protection; it does create a cause of action against landlords who are extremely bad actors. There are repercussions under AB486."
Under the state’s eviction prevention measure, tenants cannot be evicted for nonpayment of rent as long as they are actively pursuing rental assistance, or if a landlord is not cooperating with the rental assistance process or has refused to accept rental assistance. The law also establishes a path for landlords looking to recoup rents lost because of the pandemic.
Jim Berchtold, the directing attorney for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada's Consumer Rights project, said the CDC moratorium only protected a tiny sliver of evictions not covered under AB486, including those who were denied rental assistance.
"The question really for those [denied] people is: What happens now?" Berchtold said. "Now there are these cases, this bucket of cases that have been stayed under the CDC moratorium that is no longer valid. So we just don't know how the court is going to deal with those cases."
It remains to be seen whether landlords in those cases will have to go back and ask for an eviction order to be reissued or whether the court will do it automatically, Berchtold said.
"We're trying to obviously get out information to tenants to let them know that this has happened," he said. "There's no point in getting a CDC declaration anymore, and if you have a declaration, it doesn't protect you. The message is 486, 486, 486."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest ban on evictions was enacted on Aug. 3 in response to the emergence of the Delta variant and the rapid acceleration of community transmission in the United States, and amid pressure by Democrats after the Biden administration allowed the prior moratorium to lapse. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky had said the ban would provide time for relief to reach renters and increase vaccination rates.
Members of the state's congressional delegation also pointed to state measures to deflect concerns over the brunt of the ruling.
Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) said she was concerned about the decision, but that “the state enacted AB486, which protects eligible tenants who are awaiting rental assistance from being evicted.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wrote to Democratic members of the House on Friday to highlight actions taken by the Treasury Department Wednesday to help expedite getting more of the $46.5 billion in rental aid to those who need it. Those actions included allowing self-attestation with regard to financial hardship, risk of homelessness or housing instability and income.
Pelosi also said Congress would continue to look at legislative options, though an effort to extend the moratorium before it expired failed.
Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) also called for Congress to act.
“Days before the expiration of the July 31st moratorium, I wrote to congressional leadership urging swift action to extend the moratorium. My stance hasn’t changed; we need to protect millions of Americans at risk of homelessness as COVID spreads,” Titus said.
But a legislative solution appears out of reach, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“If there were enough votes to pass an eviction moratorium in Congress, it would have happened. It hasn't happened,” Psaki said Friday, adding that Biden would welcome a legislative extension.
As for what the reversal of the moratorium means for landlords, Nevada State Apartment Association Executive Director Susy Vasquez said she and members of the association are waiting to see what will happen next.
“It's expired before, it's been extended before, so I think right now what we're mainly focusing on are those people that have already been evicted,” Vasquez said, explaining that she and members of the association are shifting their attention to guidance from the courts about tenants whose eviction proceedings were blocked by the extended moratorium.
In an emailed statement to The Nevada Independent, Sisolak's office said he and state lawmakers crafted the new law during the legislative session knowing that moratoriums would come to an end and that Nevadans would need continued assistance.
His office added that state and local governments are working as quickly as possible to process rental assistance and distribute funds.
An estimated 61,000 households — or 12 percent of renter households in Nevada — are behind on rent, according to a National Equity Atlas analysis of June 2021 U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey data. As of July 31, the state has received around $208 million in federal rental assistance through the first round of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) Program and has distributed about $60.6 million, or roughly 29 percent of the funds to Nevada households.
The state’s distribution of rental assistance has picked up the pace in recent weeks, which Vasquez said is helping landlords and creating room for more dialogue between landlords and tenants.
“Recently we have seen an uptick in the amount of money that's coming out, and communication has also improved between the program and our members,” she said. “So we're hopeful that we're going to be able to retain a lot of our residents that we currently have housed.”
Since March 2020, more than 31,000 households in Clark County have received housing or utility assistance, including more than 9,000 who have received rental assistance. In addition, the county used CARES Act funds to pay past-due electric bills for more than 57,000 local households and past-due gas bills for about 6,300 local households.
The county has 8,500 rental assistance applications pending and has denied around 5,200 applications. The reasons for denial include not submitting the proper documentation, not qualifying under the income guidelines and no longer residing at the address for which they sought assistance.
In Northern Nevada, the Reno Housing Authority received 4,525 rental assistance applications, approving 1,173 of those applications and denying 72 households, mainly because applicants exceeded the income requirements. As of last week, the organization was still processing 1,965 applications.
As of last week, 2,855 applicants from rural parts of the state have applied for the first round of ERA funding through the Rural Housing Authority, which has made assistance payments to 311 households. So far, 513 applications have been rejected or removed at the initial intake point primarily because they fell outside of the organization's jurisdiction or applicants failed to fully complete the application. Another 1,145 were rejected for other reasons, including ineligibility for program assistance or failure to respond to requests for documentation, and 886 applicants are in varying stages of processing, which includes a review for eligibility.
Hansen said that anyone behind on rent or facing an eviction notice should reach out to legal aid providers, apply for rental assistance and respond to all eviction notices by filing a tenant’s affidavit in court.
“At the end of the day, this doesn't change anything that people who were facing eviction should do,” he said. “They still need to assert their defenses.”