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Sparks council candidates discuss growth, environment in wide-ranging forum

Six candidates sit behind a blue table on the left side of a conference room. On the right, two reporters sit behind a table with a KUNR tablecloth.
Tim Lenard
/
The Nevada Independent
All six candidates running for three open seats in Sparks city government joined a forum at the Sparks Library.

Candidates running for Sparks City Council shared ideas to address the city’s housing crisis, fill gaps in staffing and manage water usage during a wide-ranging forum Wednesday night at the Sparks Library.

Hosted by The Nevada Independent and KUNR Public Radio, the forum featured six candidates:

  • Incumbent Mayor Ed Lawson and his challenger, Christine Garvey, a dental hygienist and former Clark County School Board trustee 
  • Two-term Ward 4 representative Charlene Bybee, who is squaring off against Damon Harrell, a manager at a management service provider and IT company 
  • Ward 2 councilwoman Dian VanderWell, who was appointed in 2020 and has been a real-estate agent for many years and is facing business owner John Eastwick

The Sparks City Council comprises the mayor and five members representing different geographical wards who run for staggered four-year terms. Only two council seats and the mayoral seat are up for election this year. Unlike Reno, Sparks’ mayor does not have term limits and cannot vote on policies before the city council, though the mayor does have veto power and can voice opinions during policy discussions. The council votes on policy proposals and then brings approved items to the city manager for staff to implement.

For each question at Wednesday’s forum, candidates received two minutes to give their answer. Then the group answered a series of lightning round questions by raising their hand for “yes” and “no” before taking audience questions.

Candidates broadly agreed on the need to address the city’s housing crunch and shared that the council does not have the authority to address the root causes of issues such as wildfire smoke causing dangerous air quality readings. They differed on strategies to meet the needs of a community that began as a railroad hub, but has evolved into a significant Northern Nevada shopping and residential destination with its own share of growing pains.

In the lightning round, all candidates said they believed Joe Biden is the president of the United States and agreed they do not want to see stricter gun laws. Still, candidates were split on whether the existing council was fulfilling the needs of the community, with incumbents saying “yes,” and their challengers indicating, “no.” As for whether they approved of the Truckee Meadows Land bill allowing for development on nearby federal land, Eastwick joined incumbents in saying yes.

All but two of the candidates indicated support for the existing state law allowing abortions up to 24 weeks. Garvey and Bybee both abstained from saying where they stood on the issue.

Full responses are available in the embedded video. Below, we’ve condensed and edited responses candidates gave during the forum:

Last year, EDAWN predicted Washoe County will run out of land to build on by 2027. How will you handle growth as Sparks runs out of easy-to-develop land? And how will you include affordable housing in those plans?

Lawson: 

For the last 20-plus months, I’ve been giving a vision speech for Sparks. And what it includes is moving industrial businesses off of the river and putting people down there.

Garvey:

I think we need to be wise about our resources, and honest with the people that live here.

Bybee: 

Infill is one way to expand our housing. The farther out we go, the more expensive your infrastructure is.

Harrell:

We need to sit with our constituents in the city and invite people in to talk and find out from people — not other businesses — what’s the most important thing to you that we need to protect and then have a conversation, a real conversation, about how we’re going to spend our most limited resources, which is money.

VanderWell:

I had a meeting with the Culinary Union, which is doing an initiative for the state of Nevada, called neighborhood stability, because of the rising costs of housing and rents. And the reason that is happening is we’ve allowed Wall Street to come in and purchase up our properties. So that, unfortunately, is above our city council pay grade.

But hopefully, in working with the state Legislature, and our federal government, we can get some of those properties freed up from being full-time rentals for corporations and allow more housing to hit the market.

Eastwick:

I love the idea of infill development. Why build new properties, why build new stuff on the outskirts of town, when we have plenty of places in town that can get cleaned up, worked on and create jobs?

Last week, the air quality in Reno-Sparks was unhealthy for an entire week. How do you propose to protect vulnerable residents, unhoused community members and people working outside from the smoke and heat?

Lawson:

We can't do anything about California’s wildfires. A strongly worded letter to [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom will probably fall on deaf ears. So we have to take care of ourselves.

But the thing that we’re not addressing is the rest of the year. And one of the things we’re not addressing is the pollution from cars.

Garvey:

What are we doing to make sure that we keep the trees and all the vegetation that helps with that air quality?

We also need to look at filtration systems for our public buildings and make sure those are healthy, so that there are areas where people can go when the air is bad, especially for those seniors and individuals that don’t have the luxury of an air conditioner.

Bybee:

It’s not something in the authority of the Sparks City Council to do, but as community members, which all of us are, and as electeds in our community, we are always looking for solutions.

So supporting things like fans for seniors, cooling centers or a safe place to go.

Harrell:

There’s not much we can do unless we’re going to install a big fan pointing backward at California where most of the smoke comes from. But I do agree with the mayor that finding better ways of mitigating pollution is probably a good idea.

An idea that’s floated through my head before is as a government, maybe taking the lead and moving to clean energy sources — as we remodel buildings or build new buildings, making them solar or wind-powered or both.

VanderWell:

We do have to rely on our health department. I do support the mayor with getting fewer cars on the roads so that we limit commute times to eliminate our carbon [emissions] there.

Eastwick:

As far as air quality goes, that’s not going to be a “Sparks City Council to the rescue” kind of thing unless we grab an ax and a fire suit and go help out in California, which probably can’t happen. But I think just being diligent about cleaning up and taking care of dead trees and picking up the woods is the best we can do.

There are about 100 unfilled positions in the city. That’s nearly a fifth of city staff positions open, with the largest vacancies in the community services and Sparks Police Department. How will you retain and recruit city staff?

Lawson: 

Largely for the police department, we’re already doing that. We started advertising for lateral transfers. And roughly half of the people we get now on the Sparks Police Department are lateral transfers from other places.

If you have grandkids or kids, they don't grow up and say ‘I want to be a policeman or a fireman or an engineer for the city or anything.’ They want to be something else besides what it takes to run a city. We’ve got to look at grooming those folks, which we have done through outreach.

Garvey:

It’s always great to grow your next generation. But today’s the day we need those workers, we need to have people back in our police force. We’re 15 officers down. And we already have one of the [lowest] minimum ratios of police officers to citizens. So we have to be more aggressive and more creative in our recruitment.

The other thing is we need to [do], as a city, be looking into the future. What does our current workforce look like? How many people are getting close to retirement? Should we be looking at where we’re going to be having gaps within our own structure? And how do we cross-train people who maybe are at entry-level jobs that have an interest in becoming the next level up so that we can start promoting them from within?

Bybee:

By word of mouth, we can help bring more people here, and keep them here. And workforce training. We’ve got to do workforce training, and we (have) to figure out why people aren’t going back to work.

Harrell:

People right now, for some reason, don’t want to go back to work. I’m only one person so I can only think about my working history and what drew me to jobs. Some of it is cash, some of it is benefits. A lot of it is community. We have a great one here in Sparks. So I think all three of those combined are the solution to this.

VanderWell:

I feel the City of Sparks does a great job recruiting. We have the best insurance out of all the three jurisdictions. But I will echo the mayor because I spend time with young people. They’re more interested in being on Instagram or YouTube or something like that. So I think what needs to happen is we need to probably have shadow days where they come in, and they see how we run our sewer plant or see how the police department runs or the fire department and get our young people interested in those city jobs again.

Eastwick:

Community outreach has to be the best way to do that. It’s going to the schools, start getting to the kids. Also creating possible pay raises for those people that are taking those jobs — give them a reason to go look for jobs like officers and firefighters.

Last summer, Nevada saw some of the most intense periods of drought in the last 20 years. Do you think the city is currently doing a good job managing its water resources? What could they be doing to improve its water management? What other things could Sparks be doing to be more environmentally sustainable?

Lawson:

About 20-something years ago we formed TMWA, which is the Truckee Meadows Water Authority and gave them the power to monitor and provide water for our community that includes Washoe County, Sparks and Reno. They’ve done an excellent job.

Garvey:

We need to have that balance where we’re being smart about the type of vegetation that we’re encouraging people to put into their yards. And to keep healthy, because you don’t want everything to die, because then that affects your air quality with all the dust and pollutants.

A lot of homes in Sparks are older, too. So are we going after grants and other federal dollars that could help residents upgrade those things that are big water users within their own homes? So you want to have to tackle it from many different ways, because sustainability of a city is only as good as what people use.

Bybee:

We’ve really become as a community in the last 20 years, for sure, more conscientious about our water use, and we’re on meters, most of us. So we’re thinking about how we’re using water.

In our parks in recent years, we’ve removed grass, for water reasons and cost for maintenance. So we’ve already been doing that and continue to look for opportunities where we can make it more efficient.

Harrell:

Xeriscaping (low-water landscaping, focusing on native plants and succulents) for the city would be great. Using effluent water anytime you can where it’s not a safety issue for somebody.

VanderWell:

The City of Sparks in our parks and golf courses, we do use effluent water, so we’re not using up our regular water resources. I know that some new construction also puts in purple pipes (pipes used for treated, reused water) to water their lawns. So that is also a way for us to conserve. And we’ve looked at other ways to make sure that our water consumption is not as high as everybody else.

Eastwick:

I think it’s important that the county, Reno and Sparks work together on the water issue. We should take a page out of Arizona’s book and Las Vegas’s book and new development should be xeriscaped.

Please make any final/closing comments and take this time to explain why you chose to run and what main issue would you tackle first if elected or re-elected?

Lawson:

I’m a public servant. I’m not a politician. I don’t do this for the money. I do it because I truly believe and love this community.

I have fond memories of coaching football with my boys at the park. You know, that kind of stuff. Those are great memories for me. I want to pass that on to the next generation.

Garvey:

The Sparks I grew up with, you could call the leaders, you could sit down in their living room and have a discussion. And so I want to get back to that. I want to be able to be more transparent, more accessible, and be able to actually have our city be safe.

Bybee:

Though I’ve been in office for eight years, I don’t really consider myself a politician. I consider myself someone who cares about this community, who’s given 40 years of volunteer service throughout the time I’ve been here and raised my children here.

[Giving Sparks a louder voice] is really the purpose. It’s a louder voice for Sparks so we can speak louder for you, so that they don’t forget about us.

Harrell:

As we go down the line here, you’re gonna hear some pretty impressive governmental resumes. My resume includes being a little league coach and a board member for Centennial Little League. My resume is that I’m not a politician. And I’m not in politics. And I want to do things just a little bit different.

VanderWell:

I’ve had the honor to be appointed to the seat and serve for the last two years. And the reason that I am running is because I do want to represent our neighborhoods. And I do want to make sure that we have clean, safe, affordable places for our families to live and for small businesses to thrive.

Eastwick:

I’ve been wanting to run for city council for quite some time. The reason that I’m going ahead with this is because as a small business owner, sometimes I don’t feel represented, and my neighbors in downtown Sparks don’t feel represented by the city.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America focusing on community reporting and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local community issues are her passion, including the affordable housing crisis, homelessness, a lack of access to healthcare, protests and challenges facing vulnerable communities in northern Nevada.
Carly is an intern for The Nevada Independent. She lives and works in Reno but grew up in Tonopah. Because of her experience growing up in a rural community, she is passionate about the effects of local media coverage on rural communities as well as representation of communities not usually covered in the news.
Tim is a video producer with The Nevada Independent based in Reno. Originally from Wisconsin, he moved to Nevada to study journalism at UNR after four years as a paratrooper based in Italy. His writing has been featured in Reno News and Review. He’s also produced audio and video stories for KUNR Public Radio News and has worked on the TV show Wild Nevada for PBS Reno.
Tabitha Mueller arrived at The Nevada Independent to work as an intern in 2019 after working as a freelance contributor for This is Reno. She is fascinated by storytelling, place and the intersection of narrative and data analysis.
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