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Governor Can Legally Force Controversial Las Vegas Mayor to Stand Down if She Screws Up Reopening Her City


During an unorthodox Wednesday interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman pressed an argument for reopening her city despite the novel coronavirus pandemic. You can watch the interview for yourself to determine — as to the dictates of your own conscience — whether you think her plan is a good one or whether she was thinking logically when she said a Chinese COVID-19 study wasn’t applicable to her own city. (Cooper called that last claim was “ignorant.”)

As a legal matter, though, the mayor of Las Vegas, an Independent (and former Democrat), could rather easily be overridden by her state’s governor, Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, if any attempted reopening of her city results in a rise in novel coronavirus cases. State law seems very clear on this point.

Under Nevada law, the governor and “the executive heads or governing bodies of the political subdivisions of the State” (i.e., mayors and county leaders) can exercise emergency management powers. However, the governor is the one who retains the power to declare emergencies and disasters. The governor also retains the power to dispatch emergency teams and to “[m]ake, amend and rescind the necessary orders” to manage an emergency.

Furthermore, in Nevada, though the law does “authorize” local emergency management functions, they are not required of cities; cities simply “may” establish them. Plus, even if city-level emergency teams are assembled, the governor still calls the shots: he “may assume direct operational control over all or any part of the functions of emergency management within this State.” The governor can exercise such authority “in the event of an emergency or disaster beyond local control.” That’s pretty blunt and basic.

The governor can exercise other broad powers under the law, including the powers:

  • To enforce all laws and regulations relating to emergency management and to assume direct operational control of any or all forces, including, without limitation, volunteers and auxiliary staff for emergency management in the State.
  • To provide for and compel the evacuation of all or part of the population from any stricken or threatened area or areas within the State and to take such steps as are necessary for the receipt and care of those persons.

Nevada law further empowers the governor “to remove from office any public officer having administrative responsibilities” for emergency management “for willful failure to obey an order or regulation.” This section of the law is explicitly tied to the state constitution, and though the phrase “public officer” is not immediately defined in Nevada emergency management law, it arguably includes the mayor — assuming she exercises emergency management responsibilities. The phrase “public officer” is elsewhere in the law defined as “a person elected or appointed to a position which . . . [i]s established by the Constitution or a statute of this State, or by a charter or ordinance of a political subdivision of this State; and . . . [i]nvolves the continuous exercise, as part of the regular and permanent administration of the government, of a public power, trust or duty.” That broad definition is technically limited to another section of state law, but it appears to be what was being referenced in the Nevada emergency management law.

A local television report summarized the mayor’s actions as “ongoing defiance” toward the governor. Michael Naft, one of several county commissioners in Clark County, Nevada, which surrounds Las Vegas, added in that same report that the mayor was out of line, in his opinion:

Mayor Goodman’s defiance of Governor Sisolak’s stay-at-home order is reckless and dangerous. We ALL want to re-open as soon as possible. This includes the leadership of Clark County, which is home to 2.3 million residents and is the local jurisdiction over Nevada’s economic engine, the Las Vegas Strip.  Unfortunately, every expert and every indicator says we are not there yet. Lifting the quarantine too soon would be a slap in the face of all Nevadans, especially our front-line workers who have sacrificed so much for the greater good.  I implore the Mayor to listen to the medical experts, to the Governor, and to all Nevadans who are focused on economic recovery, as soon as it is medically sound.

Sisolak, the governor, has called for a gradual reopening of the state.

[Image via screen capture from CNN.]

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.