Should Linn County have five supervisors or three?
Public to vote in November on size of board
CEDAR RAPIDS — Are five supervisors better than three?
It was only 10 years ago that Linn County voters weighed in on the size of their Board of Supervisors. And this November, they’ll do it again.
But while the vote in 2006 expanded the board from three supervisors to five, an item on the Nov. 8 ballot will ask Linn County residents if they wish to go back to a three-member board.
District Supervisor John Harris, who represents the majority of rural Linn County, said the talking point is similar, but the issues have changed drastically in the past 10 years.
“The pressure to go from three to five was based on the need for service and more representation in the rural areas,” Harris said. “The catalyst in this effort to go back from five to three is money.”
A bit of history
About 10 years ago a petition began collecting signatures to address concerns that the Linn County Board of Supervisors was made up entirely of Cedar Rapids residents. District 4 Supervisor Brent Oleson, who was one of the first on the county’s five-member board, said the hope was that adding two supervisors would give rural residents more voice on the board.
“We wanted to reflect that we’re a big metropolitan county, but we still have rural interests. We have many communities like Fairfax, Hiawatha, Marion and Mount Vernon that need to be represented,” Oleson said. “And the board was really represented by Cedar Rapidians.”
That November, nearly 60 percent of voters checked yes on a ballot item that read: “Shall the membership of the Linn County Board of Supervisors be increased from three (3) to five (5) members, effective January 1, 2009?”
A district representation model was selected by voters in 2008 and a district map was drawn.
The first three districts split up Cedar Rapids. District 4 included Marion and the Bertram and Maine townships. District 5 was largely rural and circles the outer edge of Linn County, covering such cities as Fairfax, Robins, and Hiawatha.
How we got here
About one year ago, Kevin Kula of rural Coggon began circulating a petition aimed at reducing the size of the board from five members to three.
Kula, who has criticized supervisors for being overpaid for the work they do, described a reduction to three supervisors as a cost savings.
“From what I’ve seen, there’s just not enough work there for three full-time, let along five,” Kula said.
For fiscal year 2017, a Linn County supervisor will make more than $103,000 — the same as the county’s elected auditor, recorder and treasurer.
Dave Machacek of Alburnett, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for supervisor in 2006 and helped circulate the petition that year, noted supervisor pay was a talking point back then, too.
At the time, his vision was the total pay for three supervisors — annual supervisor pay for fiscal year 2006 was about $78,000 each — would be split five ways if the board expanded. But the issue of pay was not included on ballot language.
In March 2008 — before the election that would add two new supervisors — the three-member board agreed to reduce supervisor pay to 80 percent. However, that following December, those three supervisors — Linda Langston, Lu Barron and Jim Houser — rescinded the planned salary reduction.
Two months later, as public outcry grew over the supervisors’ full-time pay, the new five-member board voted to reduce to 80 percent pay — bringing their annual salaries down to $70,000.
But then a few years later the board voted to return to full-time pay, bringing salaries up to more than $95,000 in fiscal year 2014. Supervisors said returning to 100-percent-time reflected the amount of work that comes with the job and returned supervisor pay to be equal to that of the county auditor, recorder and treasurer.
But while Kula said reducing the number of supervisors saves the county money, Machacek argued it does more harm than good and costs residents their rural representation on the board. A reduction to three could eliminate the two non-Cedar Rapids districts and undo the efforts made a decade ago, he said.
“It would be a mistake to go back to three,” he said. “I’d really hate to see us give up our representation.”
Not surprisingly, Kula disagreed.
“Everybody that I’ve talked to says, ‘Heck no, we don’t have better representation,’” Kula said.
Machacek said he agrees with Kula’s argument that supervisors are overpaid, but added the public needs to address that when they elect individual board members — such as candidates who advocate for lower pay.
In addition to a decision on the size of the county board, voters this November will make selections for three supervisor seats.
Democrat Stacey Walker will face Republican Adam Jensen for District 2; Tim Gull, Republican, will challenge incumbent Ben Rogers, Democrat, in District 3; and in District 4, incumbent Democrat Oleson faces Republican Randy Ray.
Here we go again
In July, with Kula close to achieving the roughly 8,000 signatures needed to force a vote, the board pre-empted the effort and decided to place the item on the Nov. 8 ballot.
That was done to provide ample time for public discussion before the vote, supervisors said.
Ballot language hasn’t been finalized, but county officials expect it to be comparable to what voters saw back in 2006.
If more than 50 percent of voters choose a three-member board, all five supervisors — including the Districts 2, 3 and 4 seats, which also are on the November ballot — will see terms expire at the end of 2018, explained Gary Jarvis, assistant county attorney.
“Everybody’s seat would be up, so to speak, and there would be three seats available,” he said.
With county districts currently mapped out for a five-supervisor board, redistricting would need to take place to split the county into three districts.
Meanwhile, Kula is circulating another petition to have voters weigh in on the county representation plan — which dictates the board’s representation rules within the county.
Kula said he plans to hand in the petition after the November vote. If signatures are verified, the public would vote on the county representation plan — even if the board remains a five-member entity.
Iowa code allows for three types of representation plan.
The board currently has five districts with voters within each selecting only their representative.
Another district plan allows at-large supervisors voted for by the entire county, and the third option has all residents voting for district representatives.
Kula’s petition has not been verified, but if that happens before June, it would force a special election for August 2017, Jarvis said.
That vote could take place regardless of what happens in November.
“It’s completely independent of the issue or the question of changing the number of supervisors,” he said.
BOARD SIZE HISTORY
Sept. 2006: A petition with more than 13,000 signatures forces a November vote on the size of the then 3-member at-large Linn County Board of Supervisors.
Nov. 2006: Nearly 60 percent of more than 65,000 Linn County voters approve increasing the board’s size from three to five supervisors.
July 2007: In a special election, more than 56 percent of voters approve changing board representation from at-large members to districts.
Summer 2013: A handful of residents begin gathering signatures to try to establish a charter commission to possibly change Linn County’s form of government. That petition never reached enough signatures to force a public vote.
Summer 2015: Residents begin circulating a petition that would have voters decide if they want to reduce the county board from five supervisors to three. A second petition sought to have voters decide on the county’s representation plan.
July 2016: The Linn County Board of Supervisors vote to place a referendum on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. Voters will decide whether or not the board should stay at five members or be reduced to three.
BOARD PAY HISTORY
2009: (Board officially becomes 5-member entity): $87,622
Feb. 2009 (Board reduces to 80 percent pay): $70,097
2014 (Board returns to full-time pay): $95,760