The Man Behind Everything

County Manager Thom Reilly watches over a million-plus people, 11,000 employees and seven commissioners

Scott Dickensheets

Something's not quite ... right; Rory Reid picks up on that immediately. It's a late Friday morning in the commission chairman's office on the sixth floor of the county's red sandstone castle downtown. He's just been joined by County Manager Thom Reilly, here to brief Reid on upcoming issues. It's only a few days post-Katrina, so despite the calm in Reid's modest office, there's a latent anxiety in the air—the hard news coming out of Louisiana is jelling with the everyday jitters here in war-on-terror, $3-a-gallon America, to say nothing of the specific Vegas issues trying to take a bite out of the county's ass ... so there's a lot going on, and we'll get to some of it in a minute, but first, Reid looks Reilly in the face, then zeroes in on the breaking news:

"You shaved."

Reilly looks comically hangdog for a moment, aw, jeez, but it's true, although what he did barely deserves to be called shaving. Reilly has razored off the little soul patch of hipster fuzz that, until the day before, had nestled beneath his lower lip. It was a distinctive touch, making him the only county manager in the Valley's history you might mistake for an indie-film producer. Now it's gone, at the insistence of Erik Pappa, the county's public information officer—yesterday, Reilly sat for the cover of this issue, and Pappa had thought it best that Reilly clean up his image. Reid will needle him about it all through the meeting. But Pappa was right: The man looks a good five percent more managerial.

Well, from the neck up, at least. Otherwise ... well, a quick story: One day early in G-Sting, when rumors spread through the county building that an FBI raid was on, Reilly sent out a mass e-mail reassuring everyone that the suspicious people in the hallways were only reporters. "Sometimes," he wrote, "members of the media wear coats and ties and actually look presentable." So let's note for the record that as Reilly, Pappa and I shuffle into Reid's office, I'm not wearing a coat or a tie, and I still look more presentable than the man who, day-to-day, runs the 8,012-square-mile county. At least my shirt is tucked in. Reilly is casual Friday and then some—his shirt is open one button more than I'd ever dare in public, his jeans appear to be between washings and he's not wearing socks. All that and no beard, either. (Last year, on the day he declared a crisis in the county's emergency rooms—too many beds taken up by mentally ill patients—Reilly was dressed just about like this. For the press conference, Pappa says, Reilly wore a hastily assembled wardrobe of borrowed jacket and tie, although in some photos, you can tell he was wearing jeans.) Still, he's so thoroughly comfortable in his domain that the style gap between him and the impeccably attired Reid discomfits him not at all, even with a reporter observing.

As the top bureaucrat, Reilly is a man with plenty of constituencies to serve—seven county commissioners above him, 11,000 county employees below him and more than a million county residents all around—and that's what he's doing now. Most of his job boils down to communication, directing information flow, and in the case of commissioners, that can mean shooting them a look of you've said enough during a meeting or, as today, helping individuals keep current. For instance, the latest word on a task force the county wants to form to examine fuel issues.

"Who's authorized to appoint [members of the task force]?" Reid asks.

"Me," Reilly says. That'll keep interested parties from schmoozing individual commissioners for a spot on the board.

There's a surprise, too.

"I think Steve Wynn wants to be on it," Reilly says.

"Himself?" Reid asks, incredulously. Wynn!

"That's what he said."

Reid glances at me, raises his hand. "Off the record," he says.

[Things are said. Time passes.]

Reilly opens a four-inch-thick agenda for the upcoming county commission meeting. A few items need touching on. "I don't think you should have shaved that," Reid says. "I liked it." Reilly smiles and pushes on to the issues: a planned streamlining of social service programs, the money the county has saved by cremating dead indigents instead of burying them, funding for park improvements, reforms in the juvenile justice system. A boggling array of services fall under the county umbrella. Reid, in what I assume is a nod to the presence of a Reilly-profiling writer in the room, keeps the proceedings light, frequently interrupting the conversation to bring up personal topics. He asks about the Hungarian exchange student Reilly is sponsoring. The kid, Reilly reports, is adjusting to America nicely. "I asked him, what greens will you eat? He said, 'Mountain Dew.'" Sure, that stuff, Reid allows on the record. More serious county business: Not so fast. He frequently raises his hand to stop my pen. Some themes, however, remain consistent. During an otherwise off-the-record conversation, Reid chides Reilly, "He's laying this in your lap and all you're doing is shaving your beard." Reilly shakes his head wryly and picks invisible lint off of his knee. All I can say about the off-the-record material is that Reilly seems to know his stuff.

Well, of course. There is a bit more to being county manager than deft control of your facial hair.

Thom Reilly is 44, thin, of nondescript height and usually better dressed than he was in Reid's office. Sometimes he conveys a sense of subcutaneous energy that marks him as an athlete. (He runs, bikes, swims and lifts—something every day.) He became Clark County manager in 2001, returning to government after two years as a professor of public administration at UNLV—before that, he'd been the county's administrative services director. He's generally received high marks for his tenure, though not unanimously. The county's dismissal of Kathy McClain and Kelvin Atkinson for double-dipping—picking up some county pay while working in Carson City as state legislators—blew up when an arbitrator reinstated them. He caught flak for trying to curtail certain county salaries. He has a natural way with the spotlight, too. "I am shocked it doesn't bother his bosses," says one source.

But it's precisely the ways in which he doesn't come off as a typical administrator that make him worthy of attention. He's an intense guy, passionate and reform-minded—a true believer in open government, humanistic causes and an evolving definition of government's role in our lives.

One day I tag along as Reilly tapes a show at the KNPR 89.5-FM studio. Topic: the homeless. The other guests are maverick homeless activist Linda Lera-Randle El and Shannon West, then the interim head of the county-led regional homeless coalition. Reilly does most of the talking, and from the vigor of his responses, I can see that the issue means a lot to him personally—in part as an extension of the social-services impulse he's been heeding since he was 16, in part because it's exactly the sort of issue that fits into his sense of government's changing role (from service provider to convener of services) and in part, I suspect, because the fact that he's gay gives him—hey, you did know he's gay, right? I assumed so, because he's open about it in a no-big-deal sort of way—because the fact that he's gay gives him a special feeling for members of other marginalized communities.

On the air, he touts the county-led regional homeless coalition as a huge stride in addressing the issue, although, as a former Catholic Peace Corps worker and longtime social-services guy, he must at some level envy the hands-on way Randle El just hits the streets and gets shit done—helping individual people grapple with immediate problems instead of "addressing" the "issue."

"Government really gets blamed a lot for its inability to solve problems," he says in a later interview. "I think government sets itself up for that. There's no way government can figure out how to solve air pollution, traffic, rapid growth, child abuse. To pretend we can is shortsighted."

This past summer, in a guest editorial he wrote for the Las Vegas Sun, Reilly pitched his vision of government not as the ultimate provider of services or solver of problems, but rather as a force that gathers resources around an issue. "And we don't always have to be the leader," he says. "We have the ability to bring people together. We have the ability to provide good and accurate information for people to make decisions." So in the case of homelessness, that means an effort like the regional coalition that can get at the problem at several levels, using all sorts of groups. "I think nonprofits and faith-based groups are important," he says—a successful response should be able to collate government resources with the nimbler responses of outside-the-bureaucracy players like Randle El.

If changing government seems like an outsize ambition, consider that it consequently requires a big social evolution, too. For all that we gripe about the unwieldy size and vast impenetrability of government, we also unthinkingly rely on it to solve our problems.

"When I came here," Reilly says, "I was administrative services director. I was the liaison between county manager and the commissioners; I dealt with strategic planning—legislative initiatives, franchise agreements—and animal control. And I wondered, how did animal control get in here? But I quickly realized, you know what we do in government? If your neighbor's dog barks, we go tell the neighbor to shut their dog up. Why are we doing that?" His point isn't that government winds up doing some awfully silly things. It's that government does those things because citizens won't. For a government employee to shush a dog is silly; for the person next door to do it, that's just society. "Why are we doing this? Well, it's because people don't know their neighbors. They're afraid their neighbors will shoot them." What if the dog is barking because the old lady who owns it has broken her hip? Not knowing our neighbors means that instead of wondering why the old woman's dog is going nuts, we call animal control. "But I'll tell you," Reilly says, "that if the little old lady died, people would be outraged that government didn't do something. But in fact, they're your neighbors, and citizens have some responsibilities. Along with changing the role of government, I think the changing role of citizens needs to be discussed."

The county's website describes Reilly as the "chief executive officer," but in many ways he rejects the business model of government. "Government got a little offtrack when it started treating citizens as customers," Reilly says. A customer is someone who's only responsibility is to show up and pay; always right, a customer's main form of communication is complaint. That's gotta change. Says Reilly, "We took 'Celebrate the Customer' off all the windows, which was predominant here four years ago."

"We always wait until there's food in your mouth," Reilly says.

He's just yielded the floor to the gal from public works, it's her turn to speak ... and she's popped in a bite of muffin: "Mmmphmm" ... She chews as everyone laughs; the mood in the county manager's conference room is Friday-loose, and, of course, nothing peps up a meet 'n' greet with the boss like free breakfast. Reilly is in leader-of-the-troops mode this morning—another constituency to serve. He oversees 38 departments, from University Medical Center and McCarran International Airport to sewage treatment and parks and rec. Today, he's gathered a dozen randomly selected mid- and low-level county workers for one of the twice-monthly pulse-takings in which he gets the skinny from people who rarely sample the sixth-floor air.

The woman from public works is the last to introduce herself. After she describes her hairy workload, Reilly does what he did with everyone else around the table: regales her with a comment or anecdote about what's going on in her department. Whether it's a shrewd comment on upgrades in some department's billing system, a few words about a guy who's retiring or an acknowledgement of improved performance, it has the effect of putting everyone at ease while subtly letting them know the county manager knows his county—that he's plugged in, up to speed.

At other times, he assumes a posture of avid listening: hands clasped beneath the table, torso bent forward, eyes unwavering. Somehow, without his chewing ever once being apparent, he puts away a few cubes of fruit, a sausage patty and a small plop of scrambled eggs.

It's a smart, effective display, and after the meeting, I'll mention it to Pappa: "Did he study up on those people and their departments before the meeting?"

"No," he'll say, looking surprised. "It was all—" Extemporaneous?


"I didn't even see the list of who they were," Reilly says when I ask him about it a week or so later, sitting amid the genial clutter of his office. "A lot of it is that I actually do know what's going on," he says. "There's a lot I don't know, but I should basically know what's going on." To that end, he tries to visit one or two departments a month.

At one point during breakfast, in a passing remark that many might have missed or a few silently noted, Reilly mentioned his habit of micromanaging. He played it off as a kind of quirk, but in some quarters, it's seen as somewhat more. A source requesting anonymity points out that two of his deputies have recently departed. "Yes," the source says, "they both had great opportunities, but they also didn't like Reilly's meddling and taking credit for everything."

"It's a problem," Reilly admits, "and [his subordinates] have told me that. I do try to take control of issues sometimes. It's not that I think I have the only right way to do it, because I don't, and believe me, I know that. It's just that I want to get resolution on an issue, especially if I feel passionate about it, and I think when I go in there and speak with passion, people misinterpret that a lot of times as 'He's not open to suggestions.'"

How would you grade yourself, I ask.

It's a pitch in the dirt and he knows it—grade yourself low out of modesty and you beg the question, why should you keep the job?; too high and you look full of yourself. Reilly swings anyway. "I seem to think pretty highly of myself," he says, an undercurrent of irony audible in his voice. "I'm not trying to be cocky ... I think I'm pretty competent in some areas, but I know I have shortcomings. I don't know, maybe a B-plus or an A-minus? Leaving room for improvement?"

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, the third of seven children in an Irish-Catholic family, Reilly was, by 16, pitching in with Catholic Charities. "My parents always used to say that instead of pets, I'd bring home people to take care of." It's not entirely clear where the urge toward public service comes from—the Catholic high school he attended? Not entirely from his parents, at any rate; his father, who handled transportation logistics for a pharmaceutical company, and mother, an executive assistant, urged a business career on him. They weren't uncharitable, by any means, he says; they frequently took in people. "It was my great idea to sponsor refugees from Vietnam, but they ended up doing most of the work," he says. (One of those was a boy named Kim, whom the family eventually adopted.) But there was no history of taking it to the level young Thom did.

Summers he spent traveling with the Catholic Peace Corps, for example, helping out at a home for runaways in New York City, or working with the Fourth World Movement, which he calls "a radical fringe group" that tried to address housing issues. These activities took him from Los Angeles to Jersey City—where he lived with a group of offbeat nuns, for whom he made the occasional frozen margarita—to the mountains of Colorado. He was there, tutoring Spanish-speaking kids in English, when he decided he'd rather do that for a while than go to college.

"I remember my dad packing up my youngest brother and driving across the country. He talked to the priest, saying, 'He has to go to college.' He was going to help me pay for college if I majored in business instead of social work."

He stuck with social work, serving as a child-welfare case worker in Tennessee. His family eventually got over it, and after going to grad school in Arizona, Reilly wound up in Northern Nevada when his partner got a job there. In 1987, he hired on as a policy analyst with the state department of human resources. He headed downstate to run Nevada's child welfare system in 1991. By 1997, he was the county's director of administrative services and by 1999, he was out of county government, teaching public administration and social work at UNLV. He had a team of grad students following kids who grew up in the foster care system.

It was intellectually exciting, but Reilly, perhaps not surprisingly for a man so absorbed in the physical, needed a more visceral connection to his work.

"I liked the job, but I missed the action," Reilly says. "I always kinda felt I was missing out."

In 2001, his predecessor, Dale Askew, was out, the job was open and Reilly was in.

Government: Don't you just hate it? Too big, too confusing, too impersonal, too controlling. Too opaque, mostly, for ordinary citizens who aren't poli-sci majors to get a handle on.

Earlier this year, time came for Reilly's annual evaluation. The standard procedure is to conduct such proceedings behind closed doors, but Reilly pushed for two things: an open evaluation and a modest, 3 percent raise. "They mostly say nice things about me, so why not say them in public," he jokes. But it's also in keeping with his strong belief in open government—conducting the public's business in public, which he says is one of his core values as a public administrator.

At the same time, isn't there something ostentatiously open about a public evaluation? I suggest to Reilly that his move could easily be seen as grandstanding. He nods, yeah, maybe, then adds, "The flip side is, if the performance isn't good, why shouldn't that be talked about in public? Why do we evaluate the people who head the most important institutions behind closed doors? Why isn't the public able to not only listen, but have input? To say, 'I think the guy's a jerk and doesn't deserve a raise'?"

Reilly was indeed assessed in a public meeting, the commissioners did indeed say flattering things about him and he got his modest raise (plus a bonus). I needle him by asking if Doug Selby—the Las Vegas city manager, who got a 15 percent raise in a closed session—gave him a hard time for setting a difficult example. I mean it as a joke, but Reilly doesn't rise to it, saying only that Selby had a tough job and earned what he got. Nor does Reilly bite when I ask if, by "tough job," he means Oscar Goodman.

The tragic case of Adacelli Snyder, the 2-year-old girl who died of neglect earlier this year brings together a couple of Reilly's intensities: abused kids (he worked in children's welfare, remember) and open government. He's in favor of opening more records, which puts him at odds with the district attorney. "If a child dies, who are we protecting?" he asks, in a sound bite he's used before. But it's easy to see how he could get squeezed between two constituencies here—a public that wants answers and Child Protective Services workers who are, well, only human. ("As a former CPS worker who made decisions for kids who were hurt afterwards, I'm very sensitive to that whole issue.") He insists a more public airing of the records would show that for the most part, the Child Protective Services people "are doing a fantastic job," but that they make mistakes. "It's a two-way street," he says. "We want the public to be more involved, but we can't also hide behind confidentiality laws and privacy laws when it doesn't serve us." It's easy to hate government, but it's even easier when people think government is hiding something.

Reilly laughs when I ask if the county would run efficiently if he only worked 40 hours a week. I mean, dude puts in a lot of hours. He makes a point of being visibly in the office by 7 or 7:30 each morning, everyone knows he's there, so people who have to start dealing with citizens at 8 sharp don't think the top guys are loafing. He knocks off whenever he's done, and sometimes that's never. He helped coordinate arrangements for Katrina refugees during a drive home from time off in San Diego. His partner, Jim Moore, and an exchange student were in the car. Says Reilly, "They knew the whole evacuation drill. 'You've said it 500 times; we know the whole conversation!'"

How does he keep his life from becoming a to-do list instead of a life?

Well, first: Look at the guy. He's trim, but not in a way that suggests the central role of fitness in his life. Not merely fitness, it seems—physicality. Exertion grounds him: "If I can go run for a half-hour and come back, I can deal with an issue better." He gestures through his window to the empty 61 acres Mayor Goodman is so fond of. He runs out there sometimes and jokes about urging Goodman to include a track in the final development, whatever the hell it is. "If I don't work out every single day, I'm impossible to live with," he says. Check out his birthday ritual: Taking the day off, he runs 15 miles, then swims 200 yards for every year old he is. Last year, the swim took him two and a half hours. It's not just head-clearing—it's an important part of the balance that keeps him up. The comfort of having a partner of 20 years, his spirituality, the working out—depth and intensity he applies to those areas "gives me the energy to come back and be excited," he says, "because sometimes I can get so burned out."

"I have options," he'd said in one of our earliest meetings, standing casually in his office. He was trying to say something he knew would inevitably sound cocky without actually being cocky. "I could leave here and quickly have another job." What he was trying to get across was this: He doesn't have to protect his ass. His decisions don't have to be run through some calculus of self-preservation. He can just make the moves he thinks are right, although only he knows how often that's truly the case.

"I'm not sure I want to do this the rest of my life," he says nonchalantly a few weeks later. We're sitting in his office, with its view of Downtown Las Vegas. Great view, not typical Vegas stuff, not neon playground and all that—the actual city. "I don't necessarily want to be a county manager in another, bigger place." Which he proved last year, declining an offer to manage Orange County, California. Vegas—it's challenge enough, this place. "You never have enough time to do stuff. It's good for the adrenaline, although it can be exhausting. But you're never bored." I say good-bye, and I'm not out the door before he's sliding behind his desk, reaching for the phone.

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