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Chris Jones

Board Votes Unified

12 July 2005

NEVADA -- When studying the voting history of the most prominent assembly of tourism leaders in Southern Nevada, it doesn't take 20-20 vision to see that the ayes have it.

During the past two fiscal years, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's board of directors cast more than 200 votes on issues that influenced the community's tourism-dependent economy. And on every vote but one, those board members were in total agreement.

Among the board's many unanimous approvals was a Nov. 9 decision to revise the authority's management policies, including the powers of a president whom the board is tasked with overseeing.

That revision, which was approved 8-0 with almost no public discussion, formally gave President Rossi Ralenkotter the power to sell two potentially valuable trademarks for just $1 to Nevada advertising giant R&R Partners. Though Ralenkotter called the sale a minor legal maneuver to assist in an ongoing trademark infringement battle with a California woman, several board members now claim they should have been told of the sale in advance.

Numerous questions surrounding Ralenkotter's deal with R&R have since arisen, and the board's quest for answers, headed by Mayors Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas and Jim Gibson of Henderson, promises to make today's board meeting a political powder keg.

But a trio of public policy experts said the general public should be just as interested in the board's past and future actions, particularly considering its oversight of a nearly 500-employee organization with tax-supported budgets that included $433 million in expenditures and $418 million in revenue during the past two fiscal years.

"You could legitimately ask if this is an overly compliant, rubber-stamping panel," said Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Surely there must be something they would have thought to disagree on, right?"

Actually, there wasn't. From July 1, 2003, to June 30, the board gathered at 24 scheduled monthly meetings and a handful of special meetings related to budgets or employee compensation.

Excluding approvals of committee appointments, new members or the prior month's minutes, a Review-Journal examination of authority documents revealed board members voted on 214 agenda items in that two-year span. Subjects covered ranged from minor to massive, including a $400 million plan to renovate the Las Vegas Convention Center, to a $6,651 expenditure to send several area high school students to a tourism conference in Reno.

Of the 214 cited agenda items, none was voted down. And only one -- a spring 2004 marketing party at the Playboy Mansion, which two members deemed too risque a setting for a business-related affair -- sparked so much as a split vote. That was approved by a 10-2 count with North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon and Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates opposed.

Few would question the authority is accomplishing its goals. Last year, Las Vegas hosted nearly 37.4 million visitors, an all-time record, with this year's pace up 1.4 percent through April. The city was also named the nation's top trade show market in an April edition of Tradeshow Week magazine, a sought-after distinction Las Vegas has enjoyed for 11 consecutive years.

Ralenkotter is quick to praise the board for its direction in achieving those goals. However, others say its uniform voting record raises questions of whether the authority's recent success was realized despite board members' laissez faire approach to Ralenkotter & Co.'s leadership.

From its 1955 inception as the Clark County Fair and Recreation Board, the convention authority has collected room taxes from visitors and redirected those funds to help lure trade shows and leisure travelers to Southern Nevada.

Since July 2003, two women and 18 men have served on its board, which state law until recently capped at 13 members.

While some dropped out and others joined late, the board has consistently featured an array of accomplished leaders with varied beliefs and political backgrounds. Its roster during the past two years included three mayors, two city council members, three Clark County commissioners, and a dozen executives from major businesses and organizations, such as Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage, Nevada Power and Station Casinos.

Today's meeting will bring at least three new faces, each with backgrounds in local government or business circles. The board also will expand to 14 members.

Outside the authority boardroom, those same leaders have been known to disagree. Clark County Commissioners Tom Collins and Atkinson Gates, for example, recently cast dissenting votes on a local man's bid to open a coffee shop offering medical marijuana.

And amid the 2003 heated Legislative session, local gaming leaders often butted heads with the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce over proposed tax increases. But as those sides battled away in Carson City, their representatives remained in lockstep whenever authority matters were concerned.

Kenneth Fernandez, a professor of political science at UNLV, described the board's voting record as "a curious phenomenon" given its diverse membership.

"Whenever I see unanimous decisions, I always suspect that (the vote) is meaningless, symbolic or a coverup," said Fernandez. He called this board "a form of bureaucracy that is trying to adopt some of the features of a democratic institution."

Still, he concedes the board's narrow focus could allow it to operate in a less-partisan manner than a traditional local government body, such as a city council.

"They're talking about tourism, not whether county health clinics are going to provide emergency contraceptives," Fernandez said. "So in many cases, they're voting on issues they're all on-board with."

The board's voting record also could indicate its effectiveness, Fernandez said, claiming authority staffers only seek permission for items they know would meet board approval. However, the public should be concerned if controversial decisions take place behind the scenes, Fernandez added, as was the case in the $1 deal with R&R.

"A finding like this means we need to do more research," Fernandez said.

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, agreed. Board members need to be keenly aware of their roles when working with agencies such as the authority, she said, but the public also needs to pay close attention.

"Every position of public trust has a high responsibility for public accountability," Nadler said. "We need to be sure these (board members) are really paying attention because whether people think about it or not, they're dealing with public money."

Ralenkotter believes the board functions well, and he credited it for its support of the successful "What happens here, stays here" campaign despite those ads' early critics. The board's dissolution, he said, would severely limit the authority's ability to gather information from major resort operators, business interests and municipal government leaders.

Board members frequently agree, he added, because his staff offers them extensive background information and support before any public meetings.

"We put an awful lot of research into all of the items that are brought in front of the board," Ralenkotter said. "We don't have things where there are people on both sides of the issue like you'd see at some other government meetings."

Robert Forbuss, who left the board in June after representing the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce for 6 1/2 years, said he avoided dissension by researching agenda items in advance of board meetings. When questions or controversial subjects arose, he immediately called authority executives or staff members for a better explanation.

"I don't like to get into big brouhahas in public meetings," Forbuss explained.

While he would not speak for other board members, Forbuss believes those who recently served have collectively done so responsibly.

"People don't get placed on the board lightly," he said. "While they may not publicly launch into a series of questions, I think they know what's going on."

Peer pressure could also be a factor in the uniform voting, Fernandez added, saying that some board members might hesitate to object to an issue when the item is already supported by a majority of others.

Regardless, the Brookings Institution's Muro also said the public should keep its eyes open.

"In many respects, their activities are equally or more important than some of your local governments. They require the same level of scrutiny," Muro said. "And (in instances) where you don't have public recall or voting (to withdraw ineffective board members), sunshine or public scrutiny becomes even more important."

Board members receive $80 for each monthly board meeting or committee meeting they attend, plus mileage reimbursements. Many have turned down compensation or asked that their stipend be donated to charity.