Local Report

Incline Village Teaches Us What Can Happen to Government Accountability

by David Strongin

esidents of this small town validated their loyalty to the Declaration of Independence in a way to warm the heart of Thomas Jefferson.

DeTocqueville might have saluted had he observed. Both might beam in admiration of small town Americans who called their government to account, demanding its subservience to law. Incline Village is a magnet for the rich and for poor immigrants who in pursuit of the American Dream do the things the native born won’t which provides them the traditional "leg up." It’s also home to a broad spectrum of the middle class. These are the mostly unnoticed majority.

Tourists balloon Incline’s population during the summer and winter sports seasons for water sports, golf, bowling, skiing, clean air, sunshine, the High Sierra, and the priceless blue jewel set deep in its granite crown, Lake Tahoe.

Among the General Improvement Districts (GIDs) created under Nevada Revised Statutes to provide certain services, Incline Village’s GID, IVGID (pronounced Ivgid), is unique. Beyond the usual sewer, water and trash responsibilities, IVGID holds and administers in trust for Incline’s property owners who own the extensive private recreational facilities.

Most of these are of superb, resort-quality. IVGID’s relationship with Incline’s property owners is that of trustees to trustors. This fiduciary relationship, while special in the responsibilities trustees have to trustors, is instructive in the more general nature of the relationship between government and the governed, and to the responsibilities of citizenship.

Citizens of Incline Village have been deprived of directly elected representation in both county and state government and they are not represented in the federally imposed Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Disenfranchised from essential rights of American citizenship, Incliners do, however, elect their IVGID trustees who are responsible to them, their trustors and beneficiaries for the faithful execution of their trust as well as the good administration of the district for the benefit of its inhabitants and residents.

As happens from time to time between trustees and trustors, questions are raised as to whether the trustees have been faithful to their trust. When the answer to that question was not solidly affirmative, some trustors pressed for answers. The proffered answers were evasive.

The Incline Village Residents and Homeowners Association (IVRHA) charges of trustee mismanagement had been made. Embarrassed by its failure to know what statutes it is bound by and by IVRHA’s persistent requests for information that those same statutes require that the information be kept available at all times during normal business hours, IVGID reacted like the Nixon administration did to Watergate.

Rather than admitting its errors, IVGID attempted to cover up failure to obey the law with obfuscation, stonewalling, and outright lies. When genteel attempts failed to capture IVGID’s attention, IVRHA initiated debate with letters to the editor of the local paper. IVGID’s trustees reacted. They challenged IVRHA, offering to face it anytime, anyplace, and to address all issues. IVRHA accepted with alacrity, and a date was agreed upon. But when a tentative format for the discussion was presented by IVRHA to the trustees, there was no response.

Rather than the free ranging challenge expected, IVRHA was instructed at the outset to limit itself to just three topics:

  • 1. Denial by IVGID of the public’s right to a cash accounting of their money, maintained in a ledger and kept available during normal business hours as required by law. IVGID’s attitude apparently is that once a constituent has had a dollar squeezed out of him, the dollar belongs to the "gummint," and the "gummint" don’t owe y’all no essplanations. As they say in Texas, "Thass jess bidness, son. Thass awl."
  • 2. Recreation pass policy: Incline Village owns two golf courses, a ski area, various other recreation facilities, and two private beaches. These are private because the people bought and paid for them and the deeds exclude others. The pass policy was designed to allow their appropriate use by residents. IVGID laid waste to prudence so that anyone could use the facilities and be subsidized by the property owners to boot.
  • 3. Ski area operations: IVGID staff secretly changed ("refreshed," they call it) an adopted master plan for Diamond Peak Ski Resort-formerly and less pretentiously known as Ski Incline. Throughout its history, Ski Incline had lost money. Locals said fix it or close it. A citizen committee appointed by IVGID with the services of a highly regarded ski consultant, fixed it—on paper. Locals said "show me."

Seed capital was authorized but the later stages of the plan were to be implemented with profits. No profit, no more spending. Thus spake the locals. But local "gummint" insisted that they knew better than the turnip seeds they worked for, so they secretly "refreshed" the plan.

Having it their way, Ski Incline went from $1.5 million in debt at the time the plan was approved to a debt of eight times that million about eleven years later—and this after applying a total of $1.9 million in profits claimed over nine out of 11 years. Whenever staff feels the urge to spend what is not permitted under the adopted plan, some additional "refreshment" is done to the plan.

What has been done to the local property owner begs for a description in biological terms the fastidious editors of this magazine won’t permit me to employ.

Incompetent to answer IVRHA’s questions forthrightly, and denied their attempts at art, the trustees revealed themselves as less than trustworthy. Staff attempted to answer for them. Staff was hired to implement trustee policy. Trustees, one might insist, ought toknow what their policies are.

Staff, IVRHA demonstrated, makes official policy. Trustees are left to look important while they rubber stamp what the general manager offers as policy. Finally, the general manager was permitted to answer directly for the trustees rather than as their ventriloquist, but he merely exacerbated the audience’s apprehensions.

The local newspaper published one editorial complimenting IVRHA and then returned to its more accustomed obsequies toward IVGID, the Chamber of Commerce and the Visitors and Convention Bureau, all of which are apparently joined at the hip. In any one-newspaper town, this is simply how things are.

The critique of this opening volley in citizen responsibility holds meaning for government and the governed alike. Staff personnel often do the work that is properly the responsibility of their elected employers. Elected leaders frequently spend time on issues of most interest to them, at the expense of other issues, perhaps vital ones; they depend upon their staffs to digest issues and present solutions to them.

"Predigested" staff recommendations are likely laced with staff bias. At its least damaging, staff bias exposes the triumph of self-interest over sloth and inattention. In their devolution to duty, staff personnel usurp the leadership of elected officials and, therefore, the mandate of the governed.

Authority may be delegated, but not responsibility. This fact often escapes notice until scandal overtakes government. There follows struggle and reform. The cycle continues; problems recur.

Elected officials often become puppets of their staff, some wittingly, some not. Elected government, captive of its hires, is no servant of the people. If We the People fail to redress government misfeasance (and worse), we will enjoy ever less freedom at the cost of ever more money, until government relieves us entirely of both.

David Strongin is a resident of Incline Village. u


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