Ford defends Lombardo appointee challenged by conservation group’s lawsuit
Attorney General Aaron Ford at Gov. Joe Lombardo’s state of the state address in January. (Photo: Richard Bednarski)
Nevada Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo faces a lawsuit over a recent appointment to a conservation agency, but the state’s Democratic attorney general has signaled his intention to defend the appointment.
On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, and a former state employee challenged the appointment of former Republican state Senator James Settelmeyer as director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Nevada’s Constitution bars legislators from being appointed to any paid state position if the legislature voted to increase the salary of that position during their term, according to attorneys representing the Center.
Settelmeyer served in the legislature when lawmakers voted to increase the salary of the conservation agency’s director in 2021. The lawsuit seeks to have him removed as the agency’s director.
“Gov. Lombardo broke the law in making this appointment, and we’re taking him to court to hold him accountable,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center in a statement.
The salary increase in question was the result of a 1% cost of living adjustment for hundreds of state employees, a measure Settelmeyer voted against during his time as a member of the Nevada Senate.
In a letter addressed to attorneys representing the Center, the Office of Attorney General Aaron Ford noted those factors in their explanation for declining to institute a civil action to remove Settelmeyer from his new position.
Ford’s office argues that cost of living adjustments do not count as a salary increase or emolument, adding that the 1% adjustment was below the state’s inflation rate.
The purpose of the salary provision in the Nevada Constitution is to prevent legislators from financially benefiting from their own legislative action, according to Ford’s office.
“There can be little dispute that the 1% COLA – below the rate of inflation – did not enrich Director Settelmeyer such that he is precluded from service,” reads the letter from Kiel B. Ireland, deputy solicitor general in the AG’s office.
Nevadans who drafted the states Constitution “would find it bizarre to apply article IV, section 8 to a situation where the supposed emolument was a virtually across-the-board 1% raise and the incumbent in question voted against the bill that assertedly disqualifies him,” the letter continues.
As of Wednesday morning, state attorneys have not taken action against the lawsuit brought by the Center, but their letter to opposing counsel may provide clues to their legal defense and position.
When asked for additional information, a representative for Ford’s office said “no comment.”
During Settelmeyer’s time as a Nevada state senator, the salary for the Director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources increased multiple times, with the last two increases occurring during Settelmeyer’s third and final term in office, according to the lawsuit. Less than two months later, Settelmeyer was appointed the director of the conservation agency by Lombardo.
“The Nevada Constitution has a strict prohibition on appointments like Sen. Settelmeyer’s, and features a cooling-off period for legislators when they seek government positions whose salary or benefits have increased during their most recent term,” said attorney Bradley Schrager, who is representing the Center, in a statement Wednesday. “This appointment clearly violates that provision. He should resign or the governor should rescind his appointment, or the courts will address Settelmeyer’s ineligibility through this lawsuit.”
Donnelly vowed to continue the Center’s challenge to Settelmeyer’s “unconstitutional” appointment.
The Center’s opposition to Settelmeyer is rooted in his actions on conservation legislation during his time in office. The Center points to Settelmeyer’s votes against climate legislation, public lands protections, protecting water, and increasing the budget of the agency he now runs.
John Walker, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a Douglas County resident who retired from the state conservation agency in 2013, said he joined the lawsuit out of concern for Settelmeyer’s positions on conservation.
“Historically, the public servants who have led the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have risen from within the agency or otherwise gained proven experience in the executive branch of government,” Walker said in a statement. “I’m saddened to see this successful formula undone by this appointment. The department exists to preserve and protect our natural resources and that most worthy mission should never be politicized.”
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