Las Vegas Icons
By Charlotte Evans
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Las Vegas is a town known for its icons, including those who are living, and those who’ve blazed on before us to our city’s great neon “after party.” While some Las Vegas icons are recognized the world over, others are known personally to the thousands of locals whose lives they’ve touched. Each icon, in their individual way, has helped to shape Las Vegas into the remarkable city that it is today. Here, in this first installment of VLM’s LAS VEGAS ICONS, we introduce Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic.
For nearly a quarter century, Brad Jerbic has been one of the most energetic, entertaining and enigmatic players in local government. His sharp intellect, youthful exuberance (which belies his chronological age) and his rare ability to tell a story well, have endeared him to friends and colleagues at Las Vegas City Hall. As City Attorney for Las Vegas, Jerbic is essentially “house counsel” for the city. He helps keep city leaders flying right as they navigate uncharted political territory while always maintaining an eye on taxpayers’ interests and funds.
Jerbic stays seemingly awake through marathon city council meetings (where he ditches his preferred attire of jeans and Pooka shells for more traditional business suits) and is known for his ability to maintain a laser focus. Still, his surfer-style haircut hints at where his mind could potentially wander. When this public servant isn’t in council meetings or in his corner office at City Hall, he might be found body surfing at The Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., shopping at local comic book stores, or salvaging historic Las Vegas documents.
Jerbic’s office is not designed to impress or intimidate. It’s designed to amuse. Underneath a large painting of Superman, Jerbic keeps a red, 1970s “government hotline” telephone that while not in use makes for some interesting office gags. Batman figurines and other collectables decorate counters, and vintage covers of National Lampoon’s Mad magazine are neatly framed on the walls. From this auspicious space, Jerbic leads a staff of several dozen dedicated attorneys and city personnel.
Vegas Legal Magazine: I’ll start with the décor. Clearly you’re a man who knows his comic books.
Brad Jerbic: When I was 8 or 9, I had the measles and my mom went to the drugstore (back then it was Westgate Drug on the corner of Valley View and Charleston) and she just happened to pluck a comic book off the rack. It turned out to be an action comic of Superman. Back then, I was told [that] with the measles, you [had to] be in a dark room because you’re sensitive to light. I had this dim light next to the bed and I read the comic book 15 times. It was part two of a series, so I had to get the next part and that was it! It started everything and it’s never left me.
Later on when I had kids, I realized that [my love for comic books] set me straight as a kid and taught me how to read.
VLM: Growing up in Las Vegas, was there anything that steered you in the direction of public service?
BJ: My dad had a jewelry shop Downtown that was kind of the “Floyds Barber” of jewelry shops. The clientele ran the gamut, from the people who worked at the casinos to the phone company. Metro was Downtown, so you’d see a lot of cops all the time, and lots of judges and lawyers. A mish mash of everybody would come into [my dad’s] store and they would sit around and tell stories of what happened that day. If I wanted to see my dad, I had to go there because he worked Saturday and Sunday. So I was [able to be] a fly on the wall and hear all this stuff.
[My dad] had a wonderful custom. He had a Dixie cup dispenser, and at 4 o’clock every day he would count the number of people in the store and pull out a Dixie cup for each one of them. He would crack open the ice cube tray and put an ice cube in each one, and fill it full of Canadian whiskey. That’s what he called “tea time.” Everyone in his store did a shot every day at 4 o’clock.
VLM: The energy in that room…is that what attracted you to civic life?
BJ: Actually, it intimidated me. It intimidated the hell out of me. For someone to have a title in front of [their] name was just intimidating. If somebody was a judge or a lawyer or a captain in the police department, I was like, “Wow, my dad knows these people?” [That awe] changes later in life, but when you’re a kid it was just intimidating.
VLM: You have a pretty cool title as City Attorney for Las Vegas. Do you find that a lot of people, even attorneys, don’t really know what your job entails?
BJ: [Laughs] It’s funny. I admit I really didn’t know what the city attorney was and did until I got [the job.] I’m appointed to work for the citizens, and that’s the only thing I find a little bit overwhelming. My “client” is the citizens of the city of Las Vegas, and that is a big responsibility. I think everybody around [the office] understands that, too. When we go through contracts, lawsuits, whatever, it’s taxpayer money. [If] you lose a case, it’s the taxpayers who work hard for their money [who lose]. Then you have to spend money on something other than a park or public safety or whatever [the taxpayers need]. The main goal here is to not waste money.
VLM: In the last quarter century you’ve worked under three different mayors (Jan Jones, Oscar Goodman, Carolyn Goodman) and roughly 40 different city councilmembers. Which of the mayors was most challenging?
BJ: [Laughs] I would have to say that Mayor Oscar Goodman was probably the most challenging sometimes. He was so bright and so much fun, but he would spontaneously come up with ideas. And when somebody would ask him, “Is that legal?” his standard response would be, “I’ll get the city attorney working on it.” [Laughs] And if I didn’t know about it, I’d get a call from the press saying, “I understand you’re working on (fill in the blank) and so I found myself having to go to every press conference and every meeting where one of these kinds of ideas might come up so I could stay ahead of the power curve. But it was a great working relationship. It was a really, really great working relationship. I hope he feels the same way.
VLM: A lot of city leaders come to you for council. Are there recurring themes?
BJ: Legal advice is kind of tricky because sometimes it looks like political advice. And so when you try to explain, particularly to a new council member, “Here are the consequences of doing this,” you’re really telling them the legal consequences…but often they hear you’re talking about politics, which is not what we’re supposed to be talking about. And so there’s a little finesse sometimes in having to explain, “I’ve been down this road 10 times before, and Councilman, this is where it’s going. I am obligated to let you know that before you do it.”
VLM: Do you feel that once or twice you’ve been able to spare somebody getting into ethical hot water?
BJ: Yes. [Laughs] I won’t go into any more detail that that, but the answer is yes.
VLM: Is it normal for a city attorney to have the job as long as you’ve had it?
BJ: Not really. There are two kinds of city attorneys: appointed and elected. Elected city attorneys, if they’re doing their job, generally stay in office for a long time. They are [however] term limited now in Nevada. City attorneys in other states, who are elected, can. For instance, the city attorney of San Diego is a friend of mine and he was there for 30 years and did a fine job. The good ones do stay because the voters see their work and appreciate it. The appointed [city attorneys] are a bit more tricky. Some are appointed by [city] managers and some are appointed by [city] councils. I’m appointed by the city council. I think [that’s] the best form for a city attorney, because the city council is separate from management and is there to be a watchdog for all of government. If [as city attorney] you’re producing what you should be producing, you generally don’t get disturbed. But the fact is, it’s a very political job and there are a lot of [city attorneys] who don’t last very long.
VLM: You oversee a lot of people. Can you tell me about the work being handled from this office?
BJ: I think we’ve got about 25 attorneys in civil and criminal at all times. We have a wonderful fellow named Ed Poleski who’s the assistant city attorney in charge of the criminal division. He runs a number of attorneys who every day handle domestic violence cases, DUIs, petty larceny…all the misdemeanors in the city including speeding, traffic violations. Things like that. They are extremely busy. I think last year they processed over 40,000 cases. That’s an awful lot.
VLM: Is it tough for you to keep up?
BJ: Well, I’m very lucky. I’ve got good people. For the most part, I hire good people, I leave them alone and let them do their job. What I find myself now doing is making sure I’m aware of what’s happening with all the high-profile projects, and if there is going to be a decision where somebody is going to get blame, I make sure I’m the one who gets it. I don’t like to see the attorneys in the office all of a sudden get stuck with something that they feel might be career threatening. That’s what I’m here for. My job is to get a little into everything, to the extent that I need to.
VLM: Looking back over nearly 25 years as Las Vegas City Attorney, is there anything in the rearview mirror that you sort of wince at…that you wish you’d done differently?
BJ: Oh yeah. When I first started, the city got involved in doing the Fremont Street Experience, which was one of our very first redevelopment projects. It was imperative to Downtown to do something because the competition on the Strip was pretty high, and Downtown tourism was on a very steep decline. But, one of the things we did was we get involved in condemning property. I look back on that as one of the big regrets of my career. I followed the advice of my client at the time, [but] if I had known then what I know now I would have given much stronger advice and urged everybody to negotiate rather than take [anyone’s] property forcibly. Being relatively new, and not having as much confidence as I do now, I would have pushed that a lot harder.
VLM: How did it turn out for the property owners?
BJ: In the long run, they all got more than appraised value for their property. But I think you could argue [that] from a moral point of view, to turn to anybody and say you’re taking their property—and not for a road or a park or a public building [but for a private enterprise]—that’s a lot for someone to swallow. There have been changes to state law so we don’t do that anymore. But that would probably be [my] single biggest regret.
VLM: This town is small in many respects, and grudges can be legendary. Have you dealt with that?
BJ: I know of people who do hold grudges. I’m not one of them. I recognized a long time ago that it’s absolutely pointless to burn anybody in life. It makes no sense from a practical point of view. You never know who’s going to appear back in your life again. And from a human point of view, what does it get you? A lot of anger? A lot of bitterness? [I’m always in favor of] putting bitterness aside and letting practicality take over. I think that that’s something I kind of learned from my dad. Just enjoy everybody and let the chips fall where they may.
VLM: If you were to give advice to the next person who has your job, what would you tell them?
BJ: Keep a low profile. Keep focused on what the job is all about. The number one thing I would tell them is you are not the 8th member of the city council. Those would be the first words out of my mouth. You sit next to them. You advise them. You are not elected. If you have a desire to have a political opinion, you ought to resign and put your name on a ballot and run for office. If you can’t put aside the fact that you’re not elected, you shouldn’t be doing the job. That would be my number one piece of advice.
VLM: I understand you’re a fan of preserving Las Vegas history?
BJ: [The city] had a vault. Rather than move everything they didn’t need any more, they just started throwing stuff away. So I kept some things, like the original city attorney stuff from the 50s. I saved [U.S. Senator Howard Cannon’s] original resignation letter to the city of Las Vegas. He was the city attorney when he was elected U.S. senator. I flagged a few [documents] just because they’re amazing bits of history. When I leave, I hope that whoever takes over is also as fond of historic documents as I am, because [they] really tell a story. I think they’re wonderful.