Linn County Board puts its five-member fate on the ballot

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So what’s it going to be, Linn County? Five or three?

I’m talking about our Linn County Board of Supervisors, which voted this week to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters whether they want a five-member or three-member board. A group of citizens has been collecting signatures for months to force such a vote.

Rather than wait for the inevitable success of a petition drive, the board is calling for a vote, hoping the extra time will give them a chance to make a case for the current five-member set up.

If this seems like déjà vu, it’s because county voters expanded the board from three to five members just 10 years ago, and voted to adopt district representation in 2007. Driving expansion efforts was an argument that a three-member board made up of supervisors from Cedar Rapids left other cities, towns and rural areas underrepresented.

And the change did result in better representation. Two districts are represented by supervisors from Marion and Palo, with three seats held by Cedar Rapidians. It might have been even more balanced had former Secretary of State Matt Schultz accepted the county’s sensible redistricting plan in 2011.

But the dreaded pay issue has come back to bite the supervisors. Seems like someone may have predicted that. Citizens for shrinkage cite supervisors’ $103,000 paycheck as a big reason for going back to a three-member board. It would save money.

It’s been a long, strange trip since early 2008, when the county compensation board recommended a 6 percent raise for the three-soon-to-be-five-member board. Citizens raised hell and put a block under it. So in March 2008, the board voted to take 80 percent, “part-time” pay, dropping their salaries from roughly $87,000 to $70,000.

In December 2009, after an election, the board quietly rescinded that resolution. Again came public fury, and in 2009 the five-member board voted to go back to 80 percent. In 2013, sensing the coast was clear, the board voted to return to full-time pay, with a roughly $20,000 raise. In 2015, a modest 2 percent raise put them over the magical $100,000 mark.

It’s true the pay saga hasn’t been much of an issue in subsequent supervisor elections. No one lost a seat over it, specifically. Few candidates ran on it. And yet, it hovers in the background. The resentment never was quite extinguished, maybe because supervisors never were able to explain how bigger checks benefit their constituents.

That said, I also don’t see how shrinking the board benefits us. I live in Marion and am represented by a supervisor from Marion. Overpaid? Perhaps. But is switching to an overpaid supervisor from Cedar Rapids some sort of improvement? I don’t think so.

Sure, the pay issue smolders. Maybe you’re ticked about other stuff, public art, Joel Miller, etc. And I realize our elections now are more about punishment than aspiration. But punishing this board by making county government less representative, less geographically diverse, is shortsighted.

But these are shortsighted times. And the notion of fewer politicians will be appealing. Supervisors have work to do.

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