A resident of Reno since 1998 and an experienced city planner, Jenny Brekhus has been a city council member for Ward 1 for three consecutive terms, first elected in 2012. She will be running against Mayor Hillary Schieve in the 2022 election.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What first attracted you to run for City Council in 2012?
Growing up, my dad was on the town council in my small Marin County hometown. Because of this, I knew what was involved with leading a city and realized I know as much about cities as anyone, especially with my city planning background. I felt that someone with an understanding of all the complexities that are involved with leading and directing a city would be a good attribute to have on the council. So in 2011, I started running and then in 2012, I was elected to Ward 1.
What are the big issues you plan to address with your mayoral run this coming year?
Well, I’m really running to restore the integrity of the office. I believe that Mayor Schieve has allowed special interests to fester at City Hall. And I think it’s worked against the progress that our city needs to move in the right direction because special interests weigh heavily on the direction, decisions, and focus of the council.
Another issue is transparency. Schieve has chided me for having private conversations with people making requests for the council, yet at the same time, she’s not advocating for public processes to create plans that create policy. She has a closed door, movers and shakers approach to governance, and you just can’t do that in a region that is growing to half a million people. There are too many interests at the table that need a voice. And if you don’t even set the table for them to have a voice, you’re locking them out.
Lastly, focus. I’ve been focused on the fiscal matters of the city. Schieve’s focus has been on other issues that, even if they’re good issues in and of themselves, seem to take over all the oxygen in the room, whether it’s the space whale or her desire to be a cryptocurrency influencer.
We’re a city that has had so much turmoil and needs to be focused on essential services like public safety, infrastructure, and the impacts of our decision-making on people’s household budgets. The issues Schieve has focused on are on the edge of essential, and while they may be good focuses, they don’t really move the ball forward.
Affordable housing is a big issue in Reno, with just a 1.6% vacancy rate for rentals and an average monthly rent of $1600. How are you going to address this housing issue?
I think we’re at a good moment. Since 2014, I’ve been advocating that homeless services need to be provided by Washoe County instead of the City of Reno, and recently that did happen. That frees up the city to work on housing production, which is what homeless and housing insecure people need. When you look at the federal roles, the state roles; it’s more our wheelhouse to be the sponsor of these subsidies, while also making sure that the market is poised in the best position it can be to deliver the products that we need.
Now, this issue is challenging all over the country and there are not a lot of great models for how to approach it out there. But we had a good template with our Reno Master Plan, which I spearheaded when I was elected in 2012. And we have really stopped implementation on that.
Additionally, we have not been very measured in our growth. We have not gone to these outlying areas and decided in a strategic manner when we’re going to invest in infrastructure, when we’re ready to put the police patrols and fire out there. We’ve just more or less let everyone in every direction get any approval they want. And when you approve everything, nothing gets built.
There are people sitting with approvals for development, but they don’t have the public infrastructure commitments there with them. And that’s been a leadership deficiency of Schieve, because the recipe for responsible growth is already there in the master plan.
There are a lot of big players who are exacerbating this affordable housing issue, one of whom is Jeffrey Jacobs, a casino developer who has demolished many affordable living situations to make way for his Neon Line District project. How do you confront developers like Jacobs?
If you are going to do incentives or partnerships with developers like Jeffrey Jacobs, you need to get something in return. Yet, the only thing that appears to be in return in the Jacobs situation is campaign contributions to Mayor Schieve.
The decades-long development agreement made with Jeffrey Jacobs was a special interest deliverance with no real performance measures to reach our housing affordability goals in Reno. It just displaced a lot of people, some of whom were housed in motel units that have been destroyed by Jacobs to make room for his casino project.
If you are going to be a participant in the marketplace with partners, you have to be very sure that there’s certainty and there’s the deliverance of performance that benefits the public – something that did not happen with Schieve.
Transportation infrastructure is a challenge in Reno as the area has grown to nearly half a million people. How do we deal with some of the issues that come with this growth in an area poorly equipped with appropriate public transportation?
I have a long history with the transit system. Before I came onto the council, I was a Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) board appointee to the Citizens Advisory Committee for transit. So I know the system well. I knew the system well during times of distress like the Great Recession when it was sales tax dependent.
Of course, you’re not going to see transit use in the Mountain West like that in coastal metros, but you still need to have it as a good option and work to increase its accessibility, and there are models for how to do it with a bus system. Yet we have completely reversed in any way an emphasis toward a functioning bus system and it has been one of the most distressing things I’ve seen since I’ve been on the council. It was completely avoidable and now it has destroyed something that was reasonably operating, impacting our most needy.
Here’s what needs to happen, and I will do it within 30 days of taking office: I will pass a resolution that there be legislative changes to the region’s fuel tax. The fuel tax is about 40 cents on the gallon and it keeps escalating. It is hitting people’s pocketbooks and everyone knows that it needs to be stopped, and I’m going to stop it. The resolution will also say that out of that fuel tax we’re going to get some money and put it into the transit system. The transit system is underfunded and I will make it a priority to get the system rebuilt to where it needs to be, which is on par with other western cities.
I’m also going to work to reform RTC. It’s a very clubby special interest group that only has five members and not enough voices at the table. I will be proposing that it become a 10 member body and mirror the composition of the Truckee Meadows regional planning agency so that we will never allow the interests that have dominated over there to ignore a very important component of our region’s transportation system and responsibilities.
Climate change is always a big part of any discussion about transportation, growth, and development. Do you feel like the objectives outlined in the Reno Sustainability and Climate Action Plan are being met, and what actions would you take to address some of the climate impacts affecting the city?
I think the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan is a very all-encompassing, broad plan, but I think it’s a good scan of the issues. However, things have moved forward rapidly and every region is already experiencing climate change. Scenarios are starting to play out in almost every region. The one that we are seeing and experiencing is the warming temperatures, the drought cycle, and the air quality deterioration during smoke events. To me, those need to be front and center.
I sit on Truckee Meadows Water Authority and all things considered, we are doing pretty well water-wise in comparison to, say, Las Vegas, where the Colorado River is front and center – it’s existential.
We are not at that point yet. But what we really are seeing is a change that we don’t have experience dealing with, and it’s making sure everyone has access to cooling environments when they need it and environments where they can be protected from air quality deterioration.
A difference between Hillary Schieve and me is that every five years the region’s management disaster plan gets updated. And each year I bring in the issue about cooling centers and fresh air centers and have tried to get that into the plan. We have to have a focus on that. And what I see from Schieve is not a lot of focus on these issues.
I think the scenarios we’re facing are so advanced that Reno is now at the forefront of some very rapid climate deterioration situations. So, it doesn’t call for nice things like signing on to, you know, global agreements by the mayor. It calls for the mayor to really start to think about what air quality is doing to our public, both that which is locally created by transportation and that which is created by other sectors. We’re all attracted to the Reno area because of the geography. But that geography has come with an increased risk of proximity to fires and smoke and we need to start realizing what that is doing to our citizens.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
You know, I love being out on the campaign trail. I’ve run city-wide twice. And then one time just in the Ward. So I’ve been out there and I am so excited to go back out to every neighborhood in every area and hear from folks. As you step up to Mayor, you have to understand the complexity of the regional and neighborhood issues, and I’m really excited to get to know these areas even more as I go out over the next year. I am so excited to bring the opportunity for leadership to restore integrity to the council. What’s been lost by Hillary Schieve’s captured interests, by her being captured by the interest of her lobbying friend. She thinks that working out deals in private is the way to go and we just can’t do public policy that way any longer. So the voters are going to have a very clear distinction come next year and I’m looking forward to getting out there on the trail with my family and my friends and my supporters.
Claire Carlson writes about the environment for Ally. Support her work.
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