At Liberty by Adam Sullivan

How many politicians does it take to run a county?

Iowa's second-largest county shifting to three-member board

Johnson County supervisors from left: Pat Harney, Lisa Green-Douglass, Mike Carberry, Janelle Rettig and Rod Sullivan ceremonially flip the switch on the large solar energy-collecting array on the site of the former armory near the Johnson County Administration Building, 913 S. Dubuque St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. The county unveiled its newest array which is installed on the roof of the county's Health and Human Services building. Also pictured is Eagle Point Solar president and owner Barry Shear (right). (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Johnson County supervisors from left: Pat Harney, Lisa Green-Douglass, Mike Carberry, Janelle Rettig and Rod Sullivan ceremonially flip the switch on the large solar energy-collecting array on the site of the former armory near the Johnson County Administration Building, 913 S. Dubuque St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. The county unveiled its newest array which is installed on the roof of the county's Health and Human Services building. Also pictured is Eagle Point Solar president and owner Barry Shear (right). (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

How many salaried politicians does it take to run one of Iowa’s 99 counties?

Linn County is moving toward a new system to elect its Board of Supervisors, including a change from five members to three. That makes me wonder whether Johnson County, about two-thirds the size of Linn County, could manage with only three supervisors.

Iowa law allows counties to have either three or five members on the board of supervisors. To eliminate the extra positions, a referendum to reduce the board’s membership must clear a simple majority vote. The current board could place the item on the ballot, or citizens could petition to force a public vote.

If voters agree to turn to a three-supervisor system, all the terms expire at the next general election. That means all five current members would run for new seat, or leave the board.

Johnson County Supervisors are the fourth-highest paid among Iowa’s counties, according to an online database from the Iowa State Association of Counties. Each supervisor’s salary totals $71,000 in fiscal year 2018. Eliminating two of those jobs could save more than $140,000 in salaries alone.

I logged more than 600 votes taken by the Board of Supervisors in the past year, and I found fewer than a dozen cases where the members didn’t vote unanimously. That makes it seem likely the board could make most of the same decisions with just three members, and three salaries.

I pitched the idea to Supervisor Janelle Rettig, who explained why she’s staunchly opposed to reducing membership on the board. One reason is all those unanimous votes don’t reflect all of the collaboration and compromising that happens before an item comes up for a vote, she said.

“What you’re not looking at is the work sessions, where people are hammering out and trying to find common ground and compromising. Unlike the federal government that will just shut down when they can’t agree, we tend to try and find common ground and work it out,” Rettig told me.

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Casual observers of local politics may not realize the stark difference between city and county governments in Iowa. City council members and mayors are typically non-partisan volunteers, while supervisor is a partisan office with a part-time salary.

Here in Johnson County, Democrats dominate county elections. I’m worried we are paying supervisors to be hyperpartisan political activists.

Several current and recent supervisors in Johnson County are known for making inflammatory and hyperbolic comments about their political opponents. It seems only to have gotten worse in the age of Facebook and Trumpism.

I realize the supervisors are duly elected and they have a right to free speech. I even happen to like some of them personally. However, I think some have done a poor job demonstrating the value of their work to taxpayers.

With county redistricting in the news around Eastern Iowa, I suspect voters in other counties may look to shake things up as well. If Johnson County really needs five salaried politicians to run the show, I think it falls on those politicians to show it.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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