KUNR 2020 Voter Guide: Sparks City Council Ward 1

Oct 16, 2020

In this race, two millennials look to represent the heart of Sparks. Incumbent Donald Abbott, a business owner, was first elected in 2016 as the youngest Sparks City Councilmember ever and considers the creation of the Sparks Senior Citizens Advisory Committee as one of his top accomplishments. Wendy Stolyarov owns Bighorn Communications, a firm that works primarily with labor groups, and previously ran for mayor in 2018. She includes housing, wages and equality as her top priorities.

Spark’s Ward 1 encompasses southwestern Sparks, including Downtown Sparks. Municipal races in Nevada are non-partisan.

For information on other races, visit our KUNR 2020 Voter Guide home page.

As a note: All responses in KUNR's 2020 Voter Guide have been submitted by the candidates. KUNR has not changed the answers other than to provide fact-checking as needed, indicated in the text with italics and parentheses.

Credit KUNR
Credit Courtesy of Donald Abbott

Name: Donald Abbott
Occupation: Owner of AbbottOgraphy, a photography business

Why are you running for office?

I'm seeking Re-Election to continue representing the Community that raised me. I want to continue the good work I’ve been able to accomplish for the citizens of Sparks and Ward 1. I want to proceed helping the city and that I was born and raised in. I have a passion for ensuring that Sparks is the best place it can be by setting good policy that helps as many people as possible. I look forward to continuing to be a strong advocate for Senior Citizens in Sparks. I helped to create the Sparks Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, which was one of my campaign promises from 2016. Being a new board and personal interest, I have enthusiastically seen to its needs and continued support to help flourish for many years to come. I’ve met so many great people from my ward over the last 4 years that I’ve been able to help. Being able to answer people’s questions or directing them to where they can get an answer to their question, has hands down been one of the best parts of the job. I'm a product of this community and truly do love giving back to the city that has given me so much.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the city of Sparks?

Dealing with the budget shortfalls in our own budgets due to COVID-19 is a large one. We are fortunate that we received money from the CARES Act to help for now, but being fiscally responsible and making hard choices on our current budget as well as next year’s budget will be needed to ensure we continue to provide the community with the best services that we can. Additionally, we must ensure that we are able to be as supportive to businesses in these trying times, as well as supporting our citizens who have had nothing but curve balls thrown at them this year.

Another large challenge is continuing to make sound choices on the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Plant-aka “The Sewer Plant” - to ensure the plant is being run efficiently and that we have efficient capacity to handle our growing region. We want to ensure this doesn’t become a problem because, if it does, this would affect all of us drastically.

How would you rate the city’s response to the pandemic thus far?

I think the city has been effective in responding to the pandemic and we will continue to do a great job as well. There is no playbook for how to handle a pandemic, so it has been a very liquid situation. We’ve been able to support our residential and commercial tenants in Sparks with monies from the CARES Act to help them keep a roof over their head and their business doors open. We’ve supported Dining with Dignity which helps keep local restaurants/catering companies open by paying them to cook meals for our more vulnerable population. We have set internal policy to help prevent the spreading of COVID-19 to each other and to the public. We used various social media outlets and other media to push the message out about various programs we are working on and how we are handling various situations. We have approved to partner with a local firm for an eviction prevention program that helps both tenants and landlords. The end goal is to help keep people housed and have one less worry on their plate.

As a member of the city council, what would be your top three priorities?

My top 3 priorities since I’ve been elected are continuing to support the Live, Work, Play mindset that we are seeing downtown. We have new buildings that are housing new places to work at, places to call home and Victorian Square is the heart of events in our region. Of course, this year is a different story but even with these trying times we still have seen bands come out and play on the weekends and other smaller events that help create a vibrant downtown that is happening all year round.

Another priority is continuing to support responsible growth in Sparks. Responsible growth has many layers to it in correlation to infrastructure in our community. Some of the infrastructure I’ve supported and will continue to support, is our Sparks Fire Department to ensure quick response times with skilled and professional firefighters and supporting the Police Department to keep our community safe year-round. As we grow it’s important to maintain our high level of service to all of our residents here in Sparks. We can’t lose track of how important it is to not lose sight of our older neighborhoods and continuing to support them with new roads, sidewalks and investing into Parks as well.

My final priority is to have a city that works for and is accessible to everyone. Ward 1’s community is made up of residents with many different backgrounds that allow us to collaborate to ensure Sparks is the best city it can be. Now more than ever working together is extremely important, hearing from you is too! I’ve been accessible the last 4 years and have fielded many calls, texts, & emails from residents that have reached out looking for advice on a situation or have a suggestion on how to make Sparks a better place. I want to continue to maintain that accessibility to you.

It’s no secret Northern Nevada has issues with housing insecurity. What steps should the city take to address homelessness?

During my tenure I’ve supported the forming of the Community Housing Advisory Board (CHAB) where we have representation from Sparks, as well as Reno and Washoe County. There has been some great work accomplished from the community coming together as homelessness doesn’t know city borders and is a community problem as a whole. Another program I’ve supported to help with our homelessness is supporting our Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement (H.O.P.E.) Team. They are on the front lines helping people who are homeless in our community get the resources they need to help get them back on their feet. This is fairly new, and so far they have been quite busy and have several success stories in a short amount of time.

Another part of solving the homelessness puzzle is actively seeking to prevent homelessness in our community before those vulnerable lose their homes.. Currently through the CARES Act money we have dedicated $2,000,000 through Reno Housing Authority (RHA) to help with rental assistance for citizens in Sparks. Money was available through the State in that same fund, and I made sure to share it through all my social medias, E-Newsletter and reached out to residents directly who I know could benefit from applying. These $2,000,000 are also going to be supplemented with $402,633.00 from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to allow for more assistance to our residents here in Sparks to ensure people have a safe place to call home.

In that same vein, housing costs in Northern Nevada continue to climb — pricing many families out of the area. What should the city council do to increase the supply of affordable housing in Sparks?

We must be as supportive as possible with new projects to ensure the projects that are coming our way don’t get caught up in red tape. Such as the Washoe County HOME Consortium (WCHC), which makes loans available for the development of affordable housing units here in Washoe County. Its primary goal is to assist lower income families and individuals, including homeless and special needs groups, to obtain affordable housing in our region. The WCHC also allocates funds to housing assistance programs, including down payment assistance to first time homebuyers, monthly rental assistance, rental and utility deposit assistance, and homeowner rehabilitation assistance. I’m proud of a project that was completed during my tenure thanks to WCHC, which is the Alpine Haven located on Oddie Blvd. It was a great project that was made possible by the 3 agencies coming together and doing what is best for our community as a whole.

Like nearly every municipality, Sparks' financial situation amid the pandemic is precarious, at best. Where would you look to balance the city’s budget if cuts are needed in the future?

COVID-19 has thrown us a large curveball in reference to our city budgets as well as many other things. After Quarantine began and we knew our revenue into the city was going to be diminished, we started having conversations about what and how much to cut in reference to priorities of the city. Personally, I took a 5% pay cut when upper management took theirs. My cut wasn’t going to save the budget, but it was more done on principle because if we are asking city staff to take a cut, I should be one of the first ones to do so. As we are still working to overcome this, there is no doubt that the CARES Act money has been extremely helpful in helping to fill some of our financial gaps and allowing us to keep the city fully staffed. Due to CARES Act money coming in we haven’t had to discuss pay cuts with staff, and we were able to reverse the 5% reduction some of us took too. We have had to delay certain Capital Improvement and freeze some positions that are open as well to help with our current budget situation. Looking forward into the rest of the year we need to be sure we are prioritizing projects and funds that are coming into the city that have the city’s best and residents’ best interests in mind.

Since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes, activists around the country have demanded police reform. That includes some calls to dramatically shift money away from police departments toward social services. Do you support such reforms?

Our Sparks Police Department has done a good job overall, but we know that we can continue to do better for our community. Police Chief Pete Krall has held conversations/roundtables based around myriad policing items. A first step in helping here is supporting Chief Krall’s initiative to get a Police Advisory Board to help bring in previously overlooked voices so we can make policy change that benefits us all.

SPD has reviewed and updated nine different policies including Emergency Driving (Pursuits), Internal Affairs Policy and Body Worn and Fleet Cameras. The Use of Force Policy is in its final stages of review and will be published soon. The major changes there will bring us into compliance with AB3 and will include language on “Duty to Intervene.” SPD have taught that in their Defensive Tactics classes for years and will now have it incorporated in policy. MOST (Mobile Outreach Safety Team) is a great resource that we are currently using in Sparks to help with Mental Health resources. We have a limited amount of team members on MOST. However, a conversation worth having is about hiring people on our payroll with the skillset of MOST to increase the number of individuals we have to help our community members when they are in a mental health crisis.

Learn more about Donald Abbott at SparksProud.com.

Credit KUNR
Credit Courtesy of Wendy Stolyarov

Name: Wendy Stolyarov
Occupation: Owner, Bighorn Communications

Why are you running for office?

I’m running for Sparks City Council to be a strong independent voice for the people of Ward 1. I’m 33 and I’ve lived in Northern Nevada for more than a decade. I own Bighorn Communications, a company that specializes in media management and production for Northern Nevada’s labor movement. Before starting my own small company, I was a state policy expert, working as the Director of Government Affairs for Filament, a Reno-based technology company.

In 2017, I lived in a small house set back from the street on Victorian Avenue, right next to the bus station. One night, I discovered a homeless man eating cold beans out of a can  on my back porch. Before we could ask if he was all right or needed help, he ran off, leaving his can of beans behind. He was probably terrified that we were going to yell at him or call the police. The treatment of homeless people and the constant increases in rent made me realize how much work still needs to be done on housing affordability in our city - and how easy it would be for any of us to be him. For that man on my porch, what we do now isn’t worth a hill of beans.

My principles are rooted in empowering the Davids against the Goliaths. I want to make concrete changes to better the everyday lives of Ward 1’s residents on the municipal level.

I’m running for City Council because I want to fight for housing, workers, and equality in the state I love. I will use that passion to represent the people of Ward 1 with kindness, fierceness, and integrity.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the city of Sparks?

I believe that the biggest challenges facing the City of Sparks are our continuing housing and rent crisis, the looming economic depression and budget crunch facing both the City and the State as a whole, and the crisis of trust between the City, its firefighters, and its residents.

How would you rate the city’s response to the pandemic thus far?

I think the City of Sparks has done a decent job with its COVID response, though I think it should have planned ahead more once the state of emergency was declared (specifically for our community’s seniors and first responders).

I am not exaggerating when I say that morale among our Sparks Firefighters is at the lowest point in recent memory – for many reasons, but most recently as a result of our COVID response. Unlike neighboring departments in Reno and Truckee Meadows, the City of Sparks never developed a Fire-specific COVID infection plan. The result was that, when a Sparks firefighting team returned from a mutual aid wildland fire assignment in California, one firefighter was sent back on duty while awaiting the results of his COVID test, which came back positive. Because he was on duty while COVID positive, his fire station was shut down for cleaning and eight total firefighters were sent home on administrative leave to await testing.

All of this could have been avoided - and could still be fixed - by a sensible COVID testing and infection control plan which keeps our firefighters working and our City safe. If that single firefighter had been given a rapid test or allowed to stay home on admin leave while awaiting the results of his test, the City would have saved money and wouldn’t have had to shutter a station.

The City has also now ended all mutual aid deployments for out-of-state wildfires. Not offering mutual aid is unneighborly behavior and a greater burden placed on our other regional departments. Meanwhile, Sparks Firefighters miss out on the training and experience that comes from wildland assignment. The reason for this decision is not budgetary. The City of Sparks recovers all costs associated with sending resources to assist our neighbors.

As a member of the city council, what would be your top three priorities?

My big three issues are housing, wages, and equality.

Housing: Rent has gone up 50% in the past 5 years - an unsustainable rise - and half of our renters are rent-burdened (meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent). Many of our at-risk residents are seniors on fixed incomes. I will fight to keep and improve the Senior Citizens' Advisory Committee and support our struggling seniors.

Sparks also needs denser, more affordable housing to bring rent down. I would advocate for responsible zoning reform and prioritize the permitting of affordable projects. We should establish a Tenants' Advisory Board parallel to Reno's to support our at-risk residents. As we’ve seen over the last month, renters (I’m one too!) are a vulnerable population in our area. Having an unsheltered population, especially during a pandemic, is a public health crisis in addition to a human rights issue. We need to ensure that every area resident is housed and remains that way, giving them the best possible chance to get back on their feet.

Wages: I'm a strong supporter of working families and a proponent of union apprenticeship programs in the trades. These are debt-free to the student and offer good wages and benefits on day one. I'd also like to see more workforce training (CTE programs) in our high schools. A small business's best friend is a worker with time off and a fat wallet. Better wages mean better sales for small businesses in our community.

Equity: A huge percentage of our community is underserved. Sparks has the second-lowest LGBTQ equality index in the state of Nevada, second only to Mesquite. We also have large Hispanic and AAPI communities who need to be heard and supported by city services. Two out of Sparks's five wards are majority-minority, and our city website isn't even available in Spanish. The City must address these issues. I'd also like to start doing regular bi- or trilingual town halls in Ward 1 to meet residents where they're at and support their needs.

It’s no secret Northern Nevada has issues with housing insecurity. What steps should the city take to address homelessness?

We should get ahead of what is likely to be a spike in evictions once the eviction moratorium expires and ensure that we have enough winter shelter capacity to protect the growing number of outdoor neighbors we're likely to see. Our regional capacity is already insufficient. Trying to provide safe social distancing with an increasing number of unsheltered residents is a potential catastrophe on the horizon.

I also want to see an end to the "sweeps" - it's inhumane, expensive, and unsustainable to simply push people from Reno to Sparks and back again. We could be spending that money investing in housing-first solutions and establishing at least one regional safe campground, like RISE’s Governor’s Bowl proposal. I would also like to see a second shelter somewhere in Sparks and work with Washoe County to ensure we are providing mental health and recovery resources wherever possible.

In that same vein, housing costs in Northern Nevada continue to climb — pricing many families out of the area. What should the city council do to increase the supply of affordable housing in Sparks?

The structural solution to our housing crisis is dramatically increasing our supply of housing through both conventional and unconventional means. As I mentioned, I'm a strong supporter of inclusionary zoning and prioritizing the permitting of more affordable housing. We should also revisit why certain areas of our City were zoned SFO (Single-Family Only) in the past and consider upzoning more of our downtown core to include duplexes and quadplexes that are in character with their neighborhoods.

I also think we should legalize ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) citywide and create a City library of pre-permitted, fast-tracked plans that our residents can build. Wider adoption of accessory dwelling units could dramatically increase our housing stock in a relatively short timeframe.

Like nearly every municipality, Sparks' financial situation amid the pandemic is precarious, at best. Where would you look to balance the city’s budget if cuts are needed in the future?

Every local government should know by now that we’re facing serious budgetary shortfalls in the next several years. There are short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, we should be aggressively lobbying our federal partners for additional support. The HEROES Act needs to be passed as soon as possible to ensure that our state and municipalities can remain funded in the short term. We should also pursue grant funding wherever we can – our fire department, for example, was at the final stages for a SAFER grant to improve staffing levels, but it was not approved by the City government at the final hurdle.  I believe we should revisit that decision and pursue COVID-related grants wherever possible.

Longer-term, we need to reshape Nevada’s tax base by working with the Legislature. Ensuring sustainable municipal funding means we will need to revisit property tax reform. I wish Senator Ratti’s property tax reform proposal had crossed the final hurdle in 2019. I also believe we should remove deductions for mining companies and ensure that big corporations here pay their fair share. We shouldn’t give million-dollar parking garages to developers when we have so many residents hanging on by their fingernails.

When our city does have to make budget cuts, we should preserve the services that directly affect the most vulnerable as much as possible. I will fight to protect the quality and delivery of our essential city services, but also to preserve our public spaces. When a park is all you have, it should be beautiful.

I’d like to see the city try implementing Participatory Budgeting to give our community a direct say in how our City spends our money. Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget.

PB started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, as an anti-poverty measure that helped reduce child mortality by nearly 20%. Since then, it's spread to over 7000 cities around the world. If we want to hear (and lift) those in poverty, we should consider it here in Sparks, too.

Since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes, activists around the country have demanded police reform. That includes some calls to dramatically shift money away from police departments toward social services. Do you support such reforms?

I’ve always said that our funding reflects our priorities. Here in Sparks, 42% of our general fund budget goes to our police department, and 24% goes to our fire department. Washoe County funds social services. Over the past few years, we’ve dealt with a number of mental health crises where Sparks Police have been the responders – and the consequences have been tragic.

Any public safety our community provides must first do no harm. There is currently a rift in trust between our police officers and the public. We recently had a police officer - George Forbush - who fantasized publicly on Twitter about shooting BLM protesters in the face and running them over with a truck. This is fundamentally inappropriate for a profession that is meant to "serve and protect." (Note: Read more about the incident Stolyarov is referring to in this Reno Gazette Journal story.) Also, very few of our police officers are fluent in Spanish, even though many residents here only speak Spanish.

I'd like to implement an independent review board for officer-involved shootings, end qualified immunity, and ensure that we have a dedicated, 24-hour mental health emergency services response team. MOST is a good start, but parallels in other cities (like Eugene's CAHOOTS program, or Denver’s STAR) don’t ride along with police – I like that model better. We should stretch our City Charter and see how we can work with the state and County to provide services like these to our residents. I also support ending any City agreements with ICE and working to ensure that we keep families together.

Learn more about Wendy Stolyarov at wendyforsparks.com.

For information on other races, visit our KUNR 2020 Voter Guide home page.