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Two Governments

Last time, we had talked about the Las Vegas army gunnery school. The school almost didn’t happen. That brings us to the seventy-fifth anniversary of an event Las Vegans have no need to brag about … when the city had two governments.

The trouble began in 1935 when Ernie Cragin lost his bid for a second term as Las Vegas mayor. The winner, Leonard Arnett, attacked Cragin’s ties to Southern Nevada Power Company. Arnett wanted New Deal money to build a power plant and transmission line from Hoover Dam. The city also would have to chip in, although Arnett claimed it would ultimately save money. While the utilities battled Arnett, the Las Vegas Taxpayers League formed to fight increased city spending. Its leader was real estate developer John Russell. Then, in 1937 and 1938, with Hoover Dam construction completed, there was a local economic downturn. City commissioners appointed a board of local political and business leaders to study the question of municipally owned power company. They concluded that it wouldn’t be wise at that time. Arnett got fed up and took a leave of absence. He turned up a couple of months later in Petaluma, California, running a chicken ranch. He resigned as mayor to stick with Petaluma chickens. Arnett’s successor as mayor was City Commission Harmon P. Marble, who had moved to Las Vegas to be close to his daughter, who was married to the local Ford dealer, Archie Grant—himself a mover and shaker.

In 1939, Marble ran for a term as mayor. He lost to Russell, who promised what he called “sound financial policy, keeping municipal expenditures at the lowest point consistent with progressive policies.” But Russell soon ran into problems. First, he wanted a lower tax rate than the rest of the city commission. Russell also decided that municipally controlled electricity was now a good idea; the other four commissioners disagreed. Russell didn’t help his cause by accusing anyone who disagreed with him of being corrupt or stupid.

Finally, the city commissioners had had enough. On December 21, 1940, they resigned, leaving only the mayor on the board. If you thought that was entertaining, it was only the beginning. The city attorney ruled that the commissioners had to meet as a board and accept their own resignations. When they did get together, they decided to stick around. But Russell already had appointed a new group of city commissioners. So the two different city commissions met in the same room and the city clerk ran back and forth between them, trying to get them to sign off on basic needs. And when the contract came up for the gunnery school, both commissions signed their own agreements with the army. Really.

That prompted the old board of commissioners to file charges of malfeasance against Russell. On May 10, they convicted the mayor and removed him from office. He died two months later. The old board then stepped aside, and a completely new board of city commissioners was elected. Meanwhile, we remember some of those involved: John Russell owned a 100-acre ranch and the street that began near it was named for him. Later, as head of the housing authority, Archie Grant named a low-income housing project for his father-in-law: Marble Manor. And both the gunnery school and city government survived, and the city government became a lot less crazy. For the most part, anyway.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities