Michael Lyle/Nevada Current

The City North Las Vegas sided with its city clerk’s interpretation of the law used to reject the Culinary Union’s rent stabilization ballot initiative, but some experts think the union has a legal case and city officials reached their decision through a “bad faith” reading of state law.

The Culinary Union intends to sue the City of North Las Vegas to ensure its “neighborhood stability” initiative appears on the November ballot

Bradley Schrager, an attorney who has argued and won ballot initiative cases in Nevada courts, says he thinks the union has a case but is up against a short time frame to be successful.

“The City of North Las Vegas is wrong on the law regarding signatures, and you could only arrive at that through a bad faith interpretation of the constitution,” he said. “If this is going to be resolved, it has to be done at lightning speed because it will take both the district court and probably the Supreme Court decisions to finalize it. And we are talking about a matter of weeks.”

As of Monday, the Culinary Union had not filed a lawsuit.

Following the city’s decision, Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Union, said in a statement that the “Culinary Union will undertake every legal avenue to ensure that North Las Vegas residents have the right to vote – including going all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court if necessary.”

Amid historic rent increases statewide, as well as across the nation, the Culinary Union launched its initiative in May in hopes of putting forward a ballot question to cap yearly rent increases at 5%.

The proposal, opposed by realtor groups and the Nevada Apartment Association, wouldn’t apply to units owned by the government, units owned by landlords who only own a single unit in North Las Vegas, rentals where the landlord provides reduced rent as part of a federal, state or local program, and residential properties divided into four units with one occupied by the landlord.

The Culinary Union and the City of North Las Vegas are at odds with each other over the legal interpretation of state law for collecting signatures after the city clerk rejected the measure in late July.

Nevada law says that in order for an initiative petition to qualify it must receive signatures of at least 15% “of the voters who voted at the last preceding general county or municipal election.”

The Culinary Union, which submitted 3,396 signatures to the City of North Las Vegas June 30, argued the signature requirement is based on the 2019 municipal election.

Under that metric they said they not only met the threshold but they provided more than seven times the needed signatures.

Steven Silva, an attorney representing the City of North Las Vegas, said between the time the Culinary Union launched the initiative and the time it submitted signatures, the June primary election took place, so the number of required signatures was calculated based on that election’s turnout.

The Culinary, he argued, would have needed to collect 3,968 signatures in order to qualify.

North Las Vegas certified its election results June 24, six days before the signatures were due.

Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor and executive director of Vote Nevada, said a judicial ruling will probably come down to how an election is being defined.

A basic definition of a primary election, she said, is just the process of nominating candidates to move forward. However, some candidates can win elections outright during the primary if they receive more than 50% of the vote.

With the Culinary’s case, “now we get a judge that will provide some clarity,” she said, which she added might have a cascading effect on other election laws.

“I think the judge is going to say we have something of a hybrid where we are nominating or electing,” she added. “If the constitution says ‘general county or municipal,’ I would make an argument that according to my sample ballot we just had a primary in June, and that’s not a general election.”

On Aug. 3, the council voted 4-1  to uphold the clerk’s decision to reject the ballot initiative, with North Las Vegas City Councilman Richard Cherchio voting no.

“I can’t interpret state law and I do believe this needs to be somewhat adjudicated for the sake of the people out in the audience and for the realtors so you guys can have a better place to air your grievances out,” said North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee.

Cosgrove said one thing that will factor into a judge’s decision is how ballot measures are part of Nevada’s constitution and whether calculating the signature requirement based on election results that were certified days before the petition was due could have impeded that right.

“It’s not just that (voters) just have a legal right, it’s a constitutional right,” she said. “Of course you have to follow rules and ordinances and all that, but a judge might say because of this cascading effect, that was unfairly eliminating a constitutional right.”

Real estate industry favoritism?

Some residents and organizers were outraged not only by the council’s decision but that they allowed a lawyer representing Nevada Association of Realtors to give a presentation alongside Silva about their interpretation of the legality of the ballot measure.

When asked about the city’s decision to invite a lawyer for the realtor’s group to present, Khan said “it did seem inappropriate to have a third party who wasn’t party to the issue.”

“If I were a lawyer, could I also just go up there and have unlimited time to talk about things that don’t involve me?” she asked. “It’s unclear. Probably not.”

Anthony Lambert, a North Las Vegas resident who spoke during public comment, also raised concerns about “why there is a third party who is invited when this should be a decision between city council staff, city council and the petitioners.”

“Why is it that a real estate lawyer is coming in for this discussion that should be between the petitioners and the council deciding that their staff made a decision?” he asked. “I’m very confused by it.”

Lee began to respond saying it was because the real estate industry representatives are “residents by their business,” when North Las Vegas city attorney Micaela Moore interrupted.

Moore argued the lawyer for the realtors was speaking as part of public comment.

Lambert again pushed back, saying the lawyers representing the Realtors Association weren’t confined to the three minute limit placed on speakers during public comment.

Prior to the public comments, which included residents struggling to afford rising rents, Lee warned them to think twice before speaking, adding that he didn’t think people speaking “are as intelligent as the people who spoke to us” referring to the lawyers for the city, Culinary Union and Realtors.

“Everything spoken today looks like it will be interpreted in court. So if you say something that could hurt your case, you might want to second think that,” he said. “If you say something that’s contrary to what your team says, it will be used in court against your team.”

Khan found it chilling and said “some Culinary Union members were upset that they were spoken to that way.”

“The hospitality workers in the room aren’t lawyers, but are intelligent and can speak firsthand to the issues that they are facing in North Las Vegas as they are directly impacted and are being evicted or priced out of their homes,” she said. “It’s plain to see that the North Las Vegas City Council isn’t doing anything about this urgent crisis.”