Local group calls for changes to Johnson County Board of Supervisors


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On the heels of a special election that placed a Republican on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors for the first time in more than 50 years, one local group is aiming to gather 10,000 valid signatures in hopes of changing the way future supervisors are elected.

Some local Democratic leaders, however, are calling into question the legality and practicality of the district-based alternative. 

Members of the Committee for Fair Representation, an area nonpartisan organization, wants to change the board’s current five at-large makeup to five geographically based districts.

Roger Anderson, a central committee member for the Johnson County Republicans, said the end result is comprehensive county representation — something he believes has been missing following the departure of rural Johnson County Supervisor Sally Stutsman in 2012. He is spearheading efforts for an August special election.

“The principal reason that we are doing this is that until this past election, the supervisors lived in Iowa City or within a mile of Iowa City,” he said. “… It really should be a bipartisan effort, and the board makes decisions that aren’t necessarily bipartisan.” 

Supervisors Rod Sullivan, Janelle Rettig, and Terrence Neuzil live in Iowa City, and Pat Harney resides just outside of the northern city limits. All four are Democrats. Republican Supervisor John Etheredge lives outside Kalona.

Anderson said roughly 7,600 valid signatures — 10 percent of the turnout in the recent general election — are necessary by early May. He said 10,000 signatures is the goal.

A petition would give voters three options:

• Uphold elections as is, with elections to at-large supervisor seats with no district residency requirement.

•Establish supervisor elections to at-large seats, with a mandated district residency.

•Create supervisor elections by district, with district residency required.

Bill Keettel, a former chairman of the Johnson County Republicans, said that because the U.S. Congress and neighboring Linn County utilize a district-based system, the representation makes logical sense.

“The question of practicality is certainly going to be argued by both proponents and opponents of change to voters,” Keettel said. “The clue to the legality of this is that Linn County has gone to districts.”

Mike Carberry, the chairman of the Johnson County Democrats, said that although he has yet to examine the petition, geographical competition would result.

“We are Johnson County, we are not Shueyville, we are not Swisher, we are not just Iowa City,” he said. “We shouldn’t be artificially putting [supervisors] into zones. You don’t have to live in a particular area to be sensitive of those issues.”

Carberry noted a proposed plan would create a “doughnut effect” — one rural district surrounded by four metropolitan ones. He said to ensure each district had equal population numbers roughly 27,400 residents would have to reside within each.

Sullivan questioned the practicality of such a change. 

“I think that what happens when you go to districts is you lose efficiency and create parochialism, driving up the cost of government,” he said. “… We live in a country where it’s one-person, one-vote. It doesn’t matter what it looks like on a map, land doesn’t vote; people vote.”

Because roughly half of Johnson County’s population resides in the city limits of Iowa City, Sullivan said districts would still not be equally represented.

“What I think a lot of people don’t understand is there’s going to have to be a district that is half North Liberty, three-quarters Coralville, and three Iowa City districts by law,” he said. “There will not be a district where even half the people are rural. There is no way to do that under law.”

John Deeth, Democratic activist and political blogger, said he believes the plan is a Republican ploy to push Etheredge into the 2014 re-election arena.

“As recently as of 2000, all five of the supervisors lived outside of Iowa City,” he said. “It wasn’t until 2009 when Iowa City representation started. Basically, a lot of this is the personal politics of Rod and Janelle [Rettig]. It was after Janelle got on the board that the Republicans got interested in districts.  If people want to increase rural representation, the district idea is the complete backwards approach.”

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