The lawmakers vs. the law: Part II
The sounds of silence
- Thursday, April 28, 2011
When "Tick" Segerblom introduced a bill outlawing any "adverse" employer responses to political office-seeking activities by Nevada government employees, important and highly germane issues virtually shouted for attention.
Nevertheless, in the ensuing discussions of the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee on April 4, those subjects were notably — perhaps even carefully — ignored.
Clearly atop that list was the ban that the Nevada Constitution arguably imposes on public employees continuing to hold their government jobs while they also sit in the Nevada Legislature, appropriating money to their own government agencies and telling their own government bosses what to do.
The scene of all this resounding silence was the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee.
It was chaired — appropriately enough under the circumstances — by Kelvin Atkinson.
In late 2003, Clark County fired Atkinson from his position as a parks department management analyst. His supervisors had learned that the assemblyman, during a special legislative session, had been claiming sick-leave pay for days in Carson City when he was also voting on tax bills, eating Chinese food with other legislators and drawing a legislative salary.
According to a November 2003 Las Vegas Review-Journal article, Atkinson continued insisting publicly that he had indeed been sick. However, a transcript of the lawmaker's appeals hearing that same month with the county human-resources director raised new doubts.
"I made a serious error in judgment when I requested sick time rather than vacation time during the legislative session," Atkinson told the HR director. "I wish I could go back and change that, but of course, I cannot."
In May 2004, however, testifying before an arbitrator, Atkinson was again claiming he'd been sick on the days in question. Arbitrator Ronald Hoh then ordered Clark County to reinstate Atkinson and award him back pay.
Hoh's rationale: "Where an employee is guilty of a rule violation, but a supervisor is also at fault in some respect in connection with the employee's conduct, arbitrators will often reduce or set aside the penalty assessed by management."
Clark County's then-manager, Thom Reilly, called Hoh's decision "mind-boggling." It sends a negative message to other county employees, he said.
"The message is, if you can hide it and keep it from your supervisor, you're fine," said Reilly, adding that Hoh had "intimated that the county condoned [Atkinson's] behavior because it didn't immediately take action."
Supporting witnesses for Atkinson before the arbitrator, the assemblyman told the R-J, had been fellow Assembly members John Oceguera and Morse Arberry. Both backed Atkinson's statement that he had been ill.
Clark County lobbyist Dan Musgrove, on the other hand, testified, said the R-J, that Atkinson had seemed fine to him when all four individuals had dined at the Chinese restaurant.
Oceguera today, of course, is the Assembly speaker, as well as a member of the Commerce and Labor Committee. He also is a deputy fire chief for the North Las Vegas Fire Department and, as such, a recurring subject of questions about whether he would even be in the Legislature if Article Three of the state constitution — its separation-of-powers provision — were enforced.
In 2003, a Review-Journal story noted that Oceguera, at the time, "still owes hundreds of hours of work in shift trades with colleagues" from the special arrangement the City of North Las Vegas allowed Oceguera so he could simultaneously legislate in Carson City while keeping his fire department job.
Perhaps that was why Oceguera, after Segerblom introduced his bill, was the first committee member to comment. Even then, however, it was elliptically:
Mr. Segerblom, you know, I understand the prohibition ... post-being elected and putting some restrictions... [It] just seems odd to me that ... no matter what your employer ... it just seems that there should be some kind of, literally, like some kind of constitutional prohibition of them telling you ... the minute you sign up, you ... sign on ... to run for office that you have to take a leave of absence, uh ... Seems like this should already not be the case ... (Emphasis added.)
Segerblom hastened to agree. Then Oceguera continued:
Mr. Chairman, just a quick follow-up. I, I don't care what the organization is, whether it's private or otherwise, this has kind of a chilling effect from people from running for office, if the moment you sign the thing that says you're going to run for office, you have to leave your job, irrespective if it's the city or a private business, whatever it is. Now, once you get elected, maybe there's something, some things that go into effect after that, but it seems like a real chilling effect on running for office. And so, I don't know if this is the answer, but it seems like we should already ... uh ... uh ... this should already be covered, really. (Emphasis added.)
Segerblom again agreed, adding:
In fact, I think it is covered for private employers, it just doesn't say public employers, and this just adds that public caveat. But I don't ... personally, I don't ... I appreciate your comments, but I don't know that anyone would object to it ... (Emphasis added.)
Given Segerblom's central role in multiple aspects of the Wendell Williams corruption scandals that just a few years ago beset the College of Southern Nevada, the Nevada System of Higher Education and multiple, powerful Southern Nevada local governments, this statement is nothing short of preposterous.
In the next installments of this series, we'll document that characterization — by unearthing the grimy record.
Amid the official silence, it speaks for itself.
Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.