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Reno city council adopts preliminary redistricting plan as elections loom

A map of Reno shows proposed new city council wards in different colors.
City of Reno
The Reno City Council selected Final Option A as their choice for redistricting, with some minor changes.

The Reno city council took an important step in redrawing political boundaries earlier this month, when they voted to adopt a new ward map. But the decision has been controversial among elected officials and some residents.

Every ten years, after the federal government releases its newest census results, public officials redraw political districts at the local, state, and federal levels – a process known as redistricting.

But the City of Reno is about to set new city council wards again, even though the lines were just redrawn in 2021. During a city council meeting in early August, the debate over where to put those new boundaries led to tense exchanges between officials.

During the meeting, Reno’s Director of Policy and Strategy Calli Wilsey presented four potential new maps to the city council. The final options were based on months of public feedback about where the new wards should be.

“Staff is recommending final Option A today,” she said. “‘A’ represents downtown as one ward, which was preferred overall. Comparing the different communities of interest, Option A keeps historically underrepresented communities together.”

Reno has just four months to approve a new plan to create six city council wards. There are currently five wards, with an at-large council seat representing the whole city.

The city council eventually took Wilsey’s recommendation – with some minor, last-minute changes. But it took almost two hours of deliberation and three failed votes to get there.

The final result will preserve Latino political influence in East Reno’s Ward 3. That’s why Omar Nemoga with Make the Road Nevada supported the plan during public comment.

“I came to express my support for Map A, which lets us stay united in the districts of the city of Reno,” he said in Spanish.

Ward 3 council member Miguel Martinez supports the new map, too.

But Meghan Ebert from Ward 4 voted no. Ebert represents the North Valleys – and she objected because it takes parks and other public facilities out of her ward.

“Regardless of what map we go with, we will lose our only community center,” she said. “We will have none.”

Ward 1 council member Jenny Brekhus also voted against the plan. And some residents spoke against the new map during public comment, because of the way it splits up neighborhoods.

Noé Orosco with the Nevadans Count Coalition believes the city did a good job overall getting to this point.

“There's a lot of growing diversity, a growing population,” he said. “And so it is going to be very challenging to have over 200,000 people satisfied, or agree on one particular map.”

There are also strict federal requirements for redistricting: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires political maps to protect the representation of racial and ethnic minorities.

The Act was a reaction against the discriminatory practices of the Jim Crow era, when White Southerners drew districts to limit the power of Black voters in a process known as racial gerrymandering.

The majority of eligible voters in all of Reno’s new wards will be White. Nonetheless, Orosco said the plan will improve political engagement for everyone in the community.

“It's going to reduce the number of constituents that each elected official has. And at that point, it's bringing the community closer to their elected officials,” he said.

Orosco also supports the move away from at-large elections, because research shows they dilute the power of Black and Latino voters.

From the start, Reno’s redistricting process was explicitly meant to make city council wards smaller and more representative. In 2017, state legislators passed a law to create six wards at the city’s request.

But during the last legislative session, Mayor Hillary Schieve asked lawmakers to reverse that change.

“I disagree immensely on this issue,” she said during the August meeting. “I have spoken out numerous times, I even went to the legislature about this issue. This is a very, very big hotbed of an issue.”

Schieve said at-large representatives are more accountable to the whole community, because they’re elected by voters in every ward. But the bill to keep the status quo died in committee, so the city council has to set new ward boundaries.

Since they amended the draft map, they’ll have to discuss it one more time during their next meeting on August 23. Then, in early September, the plan will be up for a final vote.

In the meantime, the city has to send its proposed ward boundaries to the county, so the Registrar of Voters can adopt the changes in time for next year’s election.

“One of the biggest challenges is that, I think, for folks who have not engaged so far in the process, that their ward is changing,” director Calli Wilsey said. “Who they will vote for could be surprising, when they go to vote next year.”

According to Wilsey, once the new map is finalized, the hard work of voter outreach will begin. With Nevada’s primary elections coming up next June, they won’t have long to get the word out.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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