JOHNSON COUNTY– Petitioners pushing for a new way to elect county supervisors are getting closer to their goal.
According to Debra Thornton, chair of the Johnson County Republicans, members of the Committee for Fair Representation– the group that organized the petition drive– are “well on their way” to gathering the 7,619 valid signatures required to call for a public vote on the matter.
The petition calls for a public vote to determine how to elect supervisors to the five-member Johnson County board; whether to keep the current at-large system of representation or switch to district representation. The Committee for Fair Representation actually coalesced about nine months ago, Thornton said, in an effort to work toward a more equitable representation on the board of supervisors for all parts of Johnson County.
“We’ve had significant growth in north Liberty, Coralville, Swisher and Shueyville. But right now, because it’s an open free-for-all, there are no county supervisors from any of those areas,” said Thornton. “Those people don’t have any real representation on the board because there’s a real Iowa City-centric focus, versus a more true, traditional county focus and experience within the other urban areas.”
Current supervisors Terrence Neuzil, Janelle Rettig and Rod Sullivan all live in Iowa City, and supervisor Pat Harney lives a few miles north of Iowa City. The lone Republican supervisor, John Etheredge, was elected by special election in March and was the first Republican elected to the board since 1962. Etheredge lives near Kalona.
“We think if you have five supervisors by district, divided out in equal number, there is a greater likelihood those areas (outside of Iowa City) would have stronger representation and have their ideas better communicated on the board of supervisors,” Thornton said.
If the group acquires the necessary valid signatures, the county will be required to hold a public referendum with three options on the ballot; one, to elect the supervisors in the same at-large system as now; two, to elect them at-large with district residency required for the supervisor (the county would be split into five districts and the supervisor must live within the district, but the entire county would vote on the candidates regardless of a voter’s residence); or three, to elect by district with district residency required of both the supervisor and the voter.
Thornton said people she and the members of the committee speak with understand the model of district representation, because it is similar to the way we elect our congressional and senatorial representatives.
“People being elected by district in the United States as a whole has been done for years, since the very beginning. Senators and congresspeople elected by district allows us to ensure in each part of the state that whoever represents that district will have a better knowledge of their constituents’ wants and needs,” Thornton said. In the same way, she added, the wants and needs of constituents from all parts of Johnson County would be brought to the table.
“That’s appropriate. Everybody talks about it, hashes it out, and comes to a majority decision about what best for the entire county,” Thornton said. “It’s a traditional system we use in for a wide variety of representation, and it seems to work pretty well in most cases.”
But chair of the Executive Committee of the Johnson County Democrats Mike Carberry does not agree that district representation is good for Johnson County, believing it would set up a situation of parochialism within the county that each individual supervisors would lobby for improvements to his or her own district, regardless of where the true need is.
“You’ll set up more divisions within the county than harmony,” Carberry said.
“Right now, there are five representatives that really do get out there into the entire county, they go to bake sales and chili suppers and pancakes breakfasts in all the small communities. But if you go to districts, are the other four supervisors going to even show up in any district other than their own?”
In addition, Carberry said, creating districts actually shrinks the voice each citizen has in expressing concerns to the board. By having supervisors elected at large, all five are responsible to every citizen in the county.
“Right now you have five people go to. If it goes to districts, you’d only have one. So when your supervisor makes a decision you disagree with, you have no recourse. You could lobby the other four board members, but they don’t represent you, and if you aren’t their constituent, will they even care what you think? Districts set up that sort of thinking.”
At this point, it is too far off to foresee how the county would be divided into districts of equal population, but the process would likely be similar to the method used by Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency to redistrict the state’s legislative and congressional districts, with public hearings for citizen input on any proposed districting plans, Thornton said.
At least one person has thought about the potential ramifications of creating districts, which is guided by Iowa code. John Deeth, Data Management Chair for the Executive Committee of the Johnson County Democrats, has considered the math involved, and stated on his Internet blog that “the numbers don’t add up” if Republicans are proposing district elections to increase rural representation. Because the larger urban populations of Iowa City, North Liberty and Coralville would have to be divided, there would likely remain three districts dominated by Iowa City residents and one each dominated by North Liberty and Coralville, even if they were combined with rural counterparts. (Find Deeth’s blog at deeth.blogspot.com.)
Data on the Johnson County Auditor’s website indicates that, of Johnson County’s 57 voting precincts, only four of them contain more registered Republicans that Democrats. It’s another reason Carberry thinks the district plan is not going to gain the stated purpose of increasing rural representation.
“I think that’s their assumption; that if they do (elect by districts), they can either retain the seat they just gained in the last election, or they may be under the assumption that there are more Republicans in the rural areas and they would be more popular there than in the cities.”
But it’s a false assumption, Carberry contends, and would do the county more harm than good if the petition sets a public vote in motion.
“If this petition is successful, it’s probably going to be defeated and end up costing taxpayers $75,000 for an election that is not needed,” Carberry said.
Thornton maintains the district plan seems to be popular with people of both party affiliations and independent voters as well, and a public referendum is the democratic way to decide what’s best for the whole.
“We have had support from a wide variety of people who have responded very positively in saying, ‘this makes sense, we get it.’ People understand the concept because we do many different types of election by district in the United States, it’s very common and it works very well.”
Members of the Committee for Fair Representation plan to call in the circulating petitions May 1 to count signatures gathered. They hope to collect at least 10,000 signatures total, but have not yet determined when they will turn over the petition to the county auditor. If the petition is successful, the special election would be held Aug. 6. To find more information about the petition, visit the Johnson County Republican website at www.jcrepublicans.org  and click on “Petition Drive.”