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Inside Vegas - Steve Miller

Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman. In 1991, the readers of the Las Vegas Review Journal voted him the "Most Effective Public Official" in Southern Nevada. Visit his website at:

Par for the course
Sweetheart land deal expected to pass under the radar - again

INSIDE VEGAS by Steve Miller
July 11, 2005

Developer buys city land in 1999 for $5,600 per ac.  Immediately sells adjacent land for $130,000 per ac.
                                                                         (Photo by Steve Miller)

LAS VEGAS - Back in 1999, thousands of calls clogged the city hall switchboard causing the then-mayor to become so infuriated that she cut short the testimony of citizens who wished to speak in protest of the city selling valuable Las Vegas Valley land to a major campaign contributor for only $5,600 per acre.

During the heated hearing, protester after protester stepped up to the podium to complain that the price the city was about to accept was five times under market value. Mayor Jan Jones, who left office four months after the deal was sealed, bolstered by her sidekick, then-Councilman Michael McDonald, rudely limited the speakers to three minutes each.

A thinly cloaked excuse for selling the citizen's land was uttered by McDonald during the hearing.  His excuse was that the land was "deed restricted" and could never be rezoned to a higher and better use other than open spaces. Upon repeated inquiry by a citizen who identified himself as a real estate broker, city attorney Brad Jerbic was forced to clarify the fact that a deed restriction could be rescinded at any time by the party who originally filed the document, in this case the city council.  He neglected to mention that if the deed restriction was removed by the city council, the land could someday be rezoned to increase its' value by 700%.

I broke the story in 1999 for a weekly newspaper owned by attorney John Fadgen, Jon Moser, and Frank Vipperman. After a certified land appraiser told the council that the land was worth more than $40,000 per acre at the time of the hearing, Jones angrily held up a front page article I authored, and said, 'I know what ex-Councilman Steve Miller thinks is true, and I take exception. Land is worth what land is worth. You can speculate. Maybe someday this will be worth a lot of money. Maybe it won't."
                Jones                                     McDonald

In contrast to the way she treated the protesters, when campaign contributor and golf course developer Billy Walters stepped forward to speak, Mr. Walters was never asked to limit his presentation, and at one point when he asked for a glass of water, Jones jumped at the chance to personally pour the water into her own cup and present it to Billy. Illustrated by that one simple gesture, a thousand words were spoken.

That was then. This is now. That "someday" Jones mentioned arrived last week when Walters suddenly resurfaced after six years to ask the current edition of the city council to remove the deed restriction. Jones and McDonald are political history, but Walters now wants their replacements on the council to allow him to scrap the golf course and build homes on his $5,600 per acre land. He didn't mention that removing the restriction would catapult the land value to between $300,000 and $400,000 per acre, or that the taxpayers who begrudgingly sold him the land won't have a stake in the new game.

But sometimes things don't always go as planned. Six years after the sweetheart deal went down, the memory of the former mayor's water cup gesture and unprecedented generosity still echoes in the minds of many, and prior to Wednesday's meeting, hundreds of angry phone calls were again made to the current mayor and council telling them to, this time, "Say NO to Billy Walters!"

Based on ambiguous wording in the council agenda, it was obvious the item was never intended to draw attention, and was supposed to pass without the public's knowledge, making Walters an obscene profit of between $54 and $64 million at taxpayer expense. But it surfaced on the public's radar, and they started making calls to city hall, enough so that even current Mayor Oscar Goodman, someone with close ties to Walters, had to balk at the propriety of the deal. Goodman reluctantly tabled the item until the July 20 council meeting. Walters left Wednesday's meeting looking worried for the first time in his Sin City history.

Walters expresses disappointment after the
Las Vegas City Council
delayed a decision on whether to rescind a deed restriction to allow
him to build 1000 homes on city land he purchased for $5,600 acre
for a public golf course      MATTHEW MINARD / LAS VEGAS SUN

Back in 1999 when Walters purchased the 160 taxpayer-owned acres for only $894,000, he did so with the caveat that he would charge low green fees for locals, and accept a permanent deed restriction to limit the land's use to golf course only. An unusually vocal McDonald argued vehemently that the $894,000 was desperately needed for parks. He scoffed at protesters who said that multiple parks could be built if the city would sell the 160 acres at fair market value!

"Using money today to build soccer fields and ball fields is this council's agenda," Councilman McDonald said before the vote, which earmarked the money for park and recreation uses.

Those promises did nothing to quash the dissension in the audience when the mayor, rallied by McDonald, shut down public comment and moved to sell the land. Her motion passed 4 to 1. Soon thereafter, Walters was charging everyone, including locals, $200 green fees. Then to add insult to injury, he began selling "golf course frontage" for $130,000 per acre!

At the time, McDonald's only income was his $33,000 per year council salary, and he lived in a tiny bungalow valued at $46,140 by the Clark County Assessor.

Councilman McDonald's digs before he voted to sell city land at bargain basement prices
                                                           (Photo by Peter Christoff)

Today, Michael McDonald is building a $1.5 million dollar, one acre estate in Las Vegas' most posh neighborhood.

                               McDonald's new digs     (Photo by Steve Miller)

Of course, it would be stupid to think that McDonald's new estate, complete with a 12 car garage, has anything to do with the way he touted Walters' $5,600 per acre deal way back in 1999. And its silly to think that the $43,000 Billy reportedly gave the campaigns of five city council members since then will have anything to do with the council's decision on July 20.

Campaign contribution and expense reports often list donations or expenses eminating from 5500 E. Flamingo Road, an address used by Walters for his "Pacifica Bali Hai, LLC, dba Cili Fine Dining." The donations usually come from a number of names, and are reminicent of what is known as "bundling," where a single doner uses multiple business names to bundle large contributions to politicians when he or she does not want the public to know who the actual doner is.  It has not been confirmed whether Walters was bundling, and the practice is not illegal in Nevada municipal elections anyway.

In some cases, local politicians have accepted In Kind donations of lavish fund raising parties at Billy's "Cili" restaurant located at his Bali Hai Country Club. Or the politician pays a small amount to Billy to cover some expenses at Cili, but nonetheless, the event is usually attended by most of Billy's friends who comprise the A-list of local movers and shakers -- a major source of campaign funds that may cause politicians to feel beholden to their gracious host when the event is over.

Newly elected Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross listed "Cili Fine Dining" on his most recent finance report. Ross will be asked to approve the lifting of Billy's deed restriction on July 20. It was not listed in Ross' campaign reports exactly how much money was generated at the Cili event, nor is it required under lax Nevada campaign law to list the names of those in attendance, or whether they donated at the event, or sent their checks afterward.

   Councilman Ross

Following Wednesday's postponement of Walters' second sweetheart deal, the wording in the agenda item became of interest. It is obvious that the Nevada Open Meeting Law (NRS 241.020) was being violated. The law states each agended item must contain: "(1) A clear and complete statement of the topics scheduled to be considered during the meeting. (2) A list describing the items on which action may be taken and clearly denoting that action may be taken on those items." In other words, it must be easily understood by a layman.

The two Walters agenda items did neither. Here is the wording used in the agenda:

Item 87: Discussion and possible action regarding an agreement between the City of Las Vegas and Golf Club of Illinois, an Illinois corporation, to Release Land Use Condition and to Cancel Water Provision Agreement for APN 161-09-801-00 and 161-10-202-001 located on the southeast and southwest corners of Vegas Valley Drive and the alignment of Stephanie Street, Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada (Revenue of $2,584,984.00 allocated to the Sanitation Enterprise Fund and $4,615,016.00 allocated to the City Facilities Capitol Projects Fund - Al Wards 

Item 88: Discussion and possible action regarding First Amendment Agreement between the City of Las Vegas and Golf Club Nevada Inc. a Nevada Corporation, to amend the Stallion Mountain Golf Course Water Provision Agreement dated December 8, 1997 - All Wards

Nowhere in the two agenda descriptions does it "clearly" and "completely" state that Walters plans to bulldoze the golf course and sell the land for fifty times what he paid for it after the deed restriction is lifted.

Walters is a business partner with the Greenspun family, the owners of the Las Vegas SUN newspaper. The Greenspuns are partners with Stations Casinos in the Green Valley Ranch. There's no doubt Billy's friends in the casino business would rather see six homes per acre covering the 160 acres, than see greens and sand traps.  The property is within walking distance from two major Boulder Highway casinos including the Boulder Station, owned by Stations, and Sam's Town, owned by the Boyd Group, of which Billy's realtor, Charles L. Ruthe, is a major stockholder.

The casinos want more local residents to push the buttons on their machines. The developers want more land to build housing near the casinos to satisfy the lust of the casino owners for local customers. And politicians want more perks and bigger campaign contributions from the developers and gamers.

This kind of incestuous cycle is what makes this city tick, and it isn't going away soon.

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