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Elect — don’t appoint — supervisor’s replacement

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 07, 2009 7:20 AM

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Johnson County Supervisor Larry Meyers’ death last month left both a hole in the community and an absent seat on the Board of Supervisors. To fill that seat, the county statutory committee recently voted unanimously to appoint a temporary replacement, rather than hold a special election. A group of citizens is currently collecting petition signatures to hold a special election for the vacant seat instead.

The Editorial Board supports these citizens’ actions.

Meyers would have competed in a regular election next November had he lived to his term’s end.

The statutory committee — which consists of the county auditor, recorder, and treasurer — will now interview temporary candidates to fill Meyers’ seat until then.

The replacement would have the same duties, privileges, and powers Meyers had, save for the vice-chairman position he held before dying. That position would rotate to a current serving supervisor, Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said.

Auditor Tom Slockett said the committee set Oct. 28 as a tentative date to name the replacement.

The announcement, however, may come either before or after the date if the committee finishes its interviews early or needs more time to conduct them, he said.

The principal reason Slockett gave for choosing an appointment over an election was money. A special election would cost at least $75,000, and he said he’d rather give voters a choice: elect a candidate for $75,000 or have one appointed for free. The committee initially preferred to hold a special election, he said, but decided against it because of the sour economy.

That $75,000 sum is an expensive price for democracy, but it’s worth every penny considering the decisions the supervisors will make in the next year, including making plans for the county Justice Center and setting the budget for fiscal 2011.

These decisions are monumental, multimillion-dollar decisions. Johnson County spent more than $75 million in fiscal 2009, according to the auditor’s budget analysis. The Justice Center’s price tag has swayed wildly, at one point being estimated to cost as much as $80 million, according to the supervisors’ Aug. 20 meeting minutes.

The cost to hold an election pales in comparison. A board elected entirely by voters would only add more legitimacy to these important decisions.

Money isn’t the only reason to call for a special election. Meyers’ replacement could run in the general election and would have an enormous advantage as an incumbent, Neuzil said. Slockett played down such an advantage, saying that in the last six appointments to the board, only two have won re-election in the regular cycle.

The numbers are at best inconclusive, however. Of those six appointments, two won re-election, two lost, and two decided not to run. Incumbents traditionally have an enormous advantage over challengers in elections. While recent elections in Johnson County don’t indicate any specific trend, it is still hard to discount the incumbent advantage. The hiring process is open for the public to observe, but the public would have no say in the selection. Johnson County voters could be stuck with someone they did not elect.

The community needs a fully elected government to legitimize the critical tasks before it. County officials require the special-election petition to have at least 7,299 signatures — 10 percent of last year’s presidential-election turnout — and be submitted within two weeks of the statutory committee’s appointment.

In the interest of greater citizen input, we hope the petitioners can muster enough signatures.


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