Three Clark County Commission seats are up for grabs this November. The most contentious of the three races has divided support between sitting commissioners and renewed interest in the board’s role in approving major developments within unincorporated parts of the valley.
Setting the tone is Democratic candidate Justin Jones, a former state senator and the lawyer for the conservation group fighting against a proposed housing development on Blue Diamond Hill located near the Red Rock National Conservation Area. That proposed development atop a former gypsum mine has sparked hours of public comment at commission meetings as well as an ongoing lawsuit between the conservation group, the county and developers. Running against Jones is Republican Tisha Black, a real estate lawyer and the daughter of a former developer. They seek to represent District F, which encompasses much of the southwest part of the valley.
The candidates faced off at a debate Monday night at the Windmill Library. The majority of the questions, which were submitted by the public ahead of time and presented by a moderator, focused on development and growth. Both candidates told the crowd they are concerned with piecemeal development and natural resource sustainability in Southern Nevada.
But how they plan to approach addressing those issues differs dramatically.
Jones painted himself as a disruptor, someone who wouldn’t be afraid to dole out a hard “no” to developers seeking zoning changes or special-use permits that allow them to operate outside the guidelines of the county’s master plan. He cited his regular appearances before the commission as the lawyer for Save Red Rock, as well as previous experiences advocating for residents of the master-planned community Mountain’s Edge and pushing for improved pedestrian infrastructure following the deaths of three teenagers at the intersection of Cimarron and Blue Diamond roads.
Black characterized herself as a pro-business bridge builder, someone who “won’t draw a line in the sand” and instead seeks to balance the needs of developers, property owners and other community stakeholders. She stressed her experience as a small business owner and said she was compelled to run because she has seen it get harder for small businesses to launch and operate in Southern Nevada. Black is cofounder of the law firm Black & LoBello.
This difference of approach was most apparent when the candidates were asked what they would promise to accomplish within their first 100 days in office.
Jones answered that the Blue Diamond Hill developers are actively moving forward with their plans and have filed a new round of paperwork as part of that process. Jones said that within his first 100 days he would oppose that application and try to stop the project from proceeding.
Black would not say whether she would oppose that plan, and she made no promise beyond saying she would thoroughly look at the issue before deciding anything.
“I know it sounds good to say I oppose development, but I couldn’t say that if (the land owner) has actual property rights in the zoning there,” she said, adding that doing so would open the county to eminent domain or due process lawsuits.
She added, “Land use rights are not something we should be frivolous with. That’s against our constitution.”
Black’s argument echoes what many municipal elected officials have suggested or said about the Blue Diamond Hill proposal and other controversial development plans across Southern Nevada. In last year’s municipal elections, Bob Beers lost his Las Vegas City Council seat to political newcomer Steve Seroka in a high-profile race centered on the incumbent’s yes-vote on a proposed housing development at the former Badlands Golf Club. Seroka has since pushed for the city to draft stricter guidelines for how green spaces like golf courses can be redeveloped.
“There is a paralyzing fear of being hit with litigation,” said Jones of county commissioners and staff. “Certainly nobody likes that path, but I think it’s important as people who are elected by citizens to be willing to go and defend those rights.”
Jones said the county too often justifies approving special use permits and non-conforming zoning applications by noting they previously approved a similar project or application.
“We need to hit the reset button,” he added.
When asked their opinion regarding limiting growth the way Henderson or Boulder City do, both candidates expressed a desire for “smart growth.” Only Jones used the word “limit.” Black expressed concerns about ongoing water issues.
Jones said unincorporated parts of the county could learn about smart development from Commissioner Jim Gibson, who served as Henderson mayor for more than a decade.
“Henderson has a master plan and they actually follow it,” said Jones. “It’s an amazing thing.”
Gibson has endorsed Jones, as have commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly. Two other commissioners, Susan Brager and Larry Brown, have endorsed Black. Brager currently represents District F.
The District F endorsements align with how commissioners voted in March 2017 when the proposed Blue Diamond Hill development was last brought before them. Weekly and Giunchigliani voted against moving the development process forward. Brager and Brown were part of the majority who voted to move the development process forward. Gibson was not yet on the commission.
All of the current county commissioners are registered Democrats.
Black would be the first Republican elected to the Clark County Commission since Bruce Woodbury in 2004. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in District F.
According to campaign finance reports filed Tuesday, Black has out-fundraised Jones. The Republican reported $678,687 in monetary and in-kind donations. The Democrat reported $544,405 in monetary and in-kind donations. Both candidates have taken money from real estate developers and home builders, though Black more so.
Acknowledging this on Monday, Black told the crowd she takes umbrage with anyone accusing her of being “in the pocket of developers” or influenced by her well-connected father.
“Justin Jones has spoken to every developer for campaign contributions, just as I have,” she said. “That more of them have decided to contribute to me only speaks to the idea they think I am more reasonable.”
In his closing remarks, Jones urged voters to consider actions.
“I’m the only one who’s spent time at the county making sure your voices were heard,” he said. “That’s the takeaway. You have a choice. The choice ought to be someone who’s been there with you for years fighting the good fight.”
Early voting begins Saturday, October 20. Election Day is Tuesday, November 6.
Other commission races
District F isn’t the only part of the county whose representation on the Clark County Commission is set to change with the upcoming election.
In District E, Democratic state Sen. Tick Segerblom is expected to defeat self-funded Republican Trish Marsh. The heavily Democratic voting district is currently represented by Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who was term limited. Segerblom narrowly defeated labor union organizer Marco Hernandez during the Democratic primary. District E covers much of the central and eastern part of the valley.
In District G, former Henderson mayor Jim Gibson seeks to retain his County Commission seat, which he was appointed to by Gov. Brian Sandoval following the sudden retirement of Mary Beth Scow. Running against him is Republican Cindy Lake, a realtor and former Republican Party chairwoman, and Doug Marsh, a self-funded Libertarian. District G includes most of Henderson, all of Boulder City and slivers of unincorporated Clark County.
Meanwhile, Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak is running against Attorney General Adam Laxalt for governor. If Sisolak is successful, his Clark County District A seat would become vacant early next year. District A includes the westernmost part of Henderson, the Strip and parts of Spring Valley.