Editorial: Reno City Council races tainted with real estate developer money

Deluge of unseemly contributions highlights the need for publicly-funded local campaigns.

Graphic: the Ally

Wealthy individuals and corporations have long exercised control over the functioning of elections and resulting governments at every level. That fact is nothing new, especially in local politics, and the 2020 Reno City Council races are especially rife with campaign contributions from real estate development corporations.

This election cycle, three City Council candidates have accepted lavish expressions of free speech that call into question a future Reno City Council’s ability to honestly respond to the needs of the larger community.

The Roomy Intersection of Commerce and Government 

This election cycle, Newport Pacific Land group of companies is notable for its political generosity. There are three land development-related companies based in Newport Beach, California that have made maximum legal donations to Reno City Council races in 2020. 

Along with Newport Pacific Land Company, the Lyon Management Group, and NPC Investor LLC have made numerous $10,000.00 donations.

Incumbent At-Large Councilmember Devon Reese leads the pack with a $10,000 donation from each company.

Real Estate agent and Ward 1 hopeful JD Drakulich and Ward 3 incumbent Oscar Delgado, and Ward 5 incumbent Neoma Jardon each accepted $10,000 from Newport Pacific Land and Lyon Management Group.

The Need for Publicly-funded Local Elections

With the advice of the City of Reno Planning Commission, the Reno City Council approves or disapproves master-planned communities like Daybreak Reno, for instance.

To his credit, on his campaign website, Devon Reese describes his rationale for voting to approve the 1,000 acre development with nearly 4,000 units planned on both sides of the Veterans Parkway in south Reno. The initial plan provided for 4,700 units, which the City contested. As part of court-ordered negotiations, the Council approved a 3,995-unit development as a compromise on a 4 to 3 vote in November of 2019.

Councilmembers Naomi Duerr and Jenny Brekhus voted no, as did Mayor Hillary Shieve. According to Councilmember Reese’s website, Daybreak Reno was inevitable.

“So, when the final vote was taken, it was a choice between: (a) taking a massive risk with taxpayer money on a lawsuit (by denying the development) or (b) taking the settlement offer. I chose the settlement offer. It was not an easy call and I certainly respect my colleagues who came down on the other side. I just want to be very clear with folks that it wasn’t a choice of Daybreak vs. no Daybreak. The Daybreak development was going to happen either way. My vote was for an improved, imperfect project with more affordable housing and jobs, rather than a lawsuit we would have likely lost, leading to a less environmentally responsible development with basically no affordable housing units.”

In the same post, Reese addresses why he accepts campaign contributions from real estate developers and apparently anyone. 

“Almost every large contribution to councilmembers comes from organizations that have some business before the city council. If you only take contributions where you agree with the givers’ interest you are setting yourself up to create conflicts. The only way to avoid conflicts of interest is to take all legal contributions,” Reese writes. 

“If you look at the C&E (Contributions and Expenses) reports of any candidate you are bound to find some contribution you don’t like, no matter what side of the political fence you’re on. I personally believe we need campaign finance reform or publicly financed campaigns. We certainly don’t need wealthy folks pretending to loan their campaigns money under the guise of neutrality—that would leave us with only wealthy folks being qualified to run for office.”

Good to know Reese is for campaign finance reform, especially publicly-funded campaigns, but in the end, under current law, he accepted maximum contributions from the developer of Daybreak Reno and voted to approve the compromise development. That Reese addresses the unseemly relationship on his pages is good, but in that writing he accomplishes little more than to act as an apologist for the corporations that would deploy a team of lawyers to ensure their apparent right to exploit the regional environment for profit.

The problem is, Eddie Lorton is the opposing candidate in the At-Large race. Lorton is a successful businessman and mercurial political operative who donated $100,000 to his own campaign for the At-Large seat in 2020. His second-largest donor is Don Roger Norman, one of the founders of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center in Storey County. Adding Lorton’s Trumpian Republicanism to the Reno City Council would be a blindfolded step backward for the community.

If election law or scruples prevented Devon Reese from raking in developer cash as he has, we’d encourage readers to vote for him, but with his kitty so bloated with troubling campaign contributions, the Ally cannot recommend either candidate for the At-Large seat.

Ward 1:

Jenny Brehkus is an indispensable member of the Reno City Council. Brekhus consistently brings a lively, well-informed land use planner’s intellect to the Council’s deliberations. She unerringly acts on residents’ behalf. She has repeatedly demonstrated an awareness of the potential for human development to diminish finite natural resources, land, water and air. Councilmember Brekhus’ attention to detail regarding land use and development has resulted in a record that speaks for itself. Anyone who has attended a City Council meeting knows the important role Brekhus plays in adding needed rigor to any public, deliberative process. Her funding profile reflects a healthy mix of donors with no glaring conflicts of interest. 

Real estate agent JD Drakulich is a developer’s rubber stamp in-waiting. His donor list is a who’s who of regional and national real estate and construction corporations and associated individuals. Drakulich has raised more than twice as much money as Brekhus as of the October 15 campaign finance filing deadline. To send Mr. Drakulich to the Reno City Council would be a severe blow for sustainable development patterns, regional quality of life, and ultimately, the environment. 

Ward 3:

Like Devon Reese, Oscar Delgado voted for Daybreak Reno and accepted the developer’s campaign contributions. In contrast to Reese’s justification for taking developer money and voting for their projects, Delgado’s campaign website contains less information than a LinkedIn page. Delgado’s seemingly unbridled acceptance of developer dollars aside, he is typically an engaged councilmember who brings the City’s sizable Spanish speaking perspective to the forum.

Ruth “Rudy” Leon is a political newbie who appears to be running her campaign on donations from family and friends. The lack of corporate donations would certainly make her a less encumbered lawmaker. Contrasting her campaign website to Oscar Delgado’s, Leon offers a handful of broad policy positions and lists “smart growth” as a priority, among several progressive policy statements. 

Ward 5:

Like Devon Reese and Oscar Delgado, incumbent Neoma Jardon voted for the Daybreak Reno project and accepted maximum-amount campaign contributions from the project developer, along with several other land development corporations. A drive through Ward 5 is breath-taking for the sheer size of recent, upscale, residential development. The Jardon website makes no mention of controlling growth or natural resource management as priorities.

Darla Fink is a political newbie and has raised a fraction of the money incumbent Jardon has amassed. On her website Fink lightly addresses responsible growth, “but not at the expense of the needs of existing residents and businesses.” A lack of real estate industry funding would make Fink a far less encumbered lawmaker when voting to approve or disapprove massive, car-based, resource-intensive developments than Councilmember Jardon.

What’s at Stake?

From its origin in Washoe Lake, Steamboat Creek winds through the Truckee Meadows, south to north. The Creek ultimately discharges into the Truckee River in Sparks, next to the regional sewage treatment facility. Effluent from the wastewater treatment plant flows into the Creek and literally improves its water quality before it enters the Truckee River.

Nonpoint source pollution is the leading cause of water quality degradation in Nevada. Runoff from roads, parking lots, lawns, and golf courses severely pollute Steamboat Creek and every regional waterway to some degree, from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake.

The Veteran’s Parkway corridor in south Reno – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

With the Washoe County Lands Bill potentially enabling the transfer of federal land to the County to be sold for economic development, the pressure to build more and more “units” in areas far, far away from existing urban centers continues to mount. 

Can we all count on Devon Reese, JD Drakulich, Oscar Delgado, and Neoma Jardon to put the environment before the profits of their largest campaign contributors? Do $10,000 contributions matter?

Who is served when eager, for-profit interests, real estate developers in this case, decide to swamp local races with money?  

Like in Ward 1, when corporate money floods the campaign coffers of JD Drakulich, the campaign ceases to be about ideas and becomes a race about an ability to buy yard signs, radio ads, tv ads, and flyers replete with vague, baby-talk messaging about a brighter future and hard work … 

The need for publicly-funded local campaigns could not be more evident and urgent.