Monday, June 01, 2015

Supervisor Districts Fizzle Again

Today's deadline has passed and Johnson County will not be considering a change to a district system for electing county supervisors this year.

Republicans had announced a petition effort to change the electoral system several months ago. But it seemed less spirited that in past years. Petitions were occasionally out at GOP events, but there was never a big push.

It's hard to collect over 5,000 signatures without people hearing about it. In 2008, when Republicans needed more than 7,000 names in just two weeks for a recount of that year's conservation bond, petitioners were grabbing random Pentacrest passers-by. So it was clear at least a month ago, when campus calmed down for finals, that nothing was happening, and today's deadline is just a formality. Privately, Republican sources told me months ago that nothing was coming of this effort.

A successful petition drive would have forced a special election, likely on August 4. If a district plan had won that election, the county would be chopped into five pieces and all five seats would have been up in 2016. The terms of supervisors Janelle Rettig and Mike Carberry, elected to four year terms in 2014, would have been cut short.

Also, depending on the specifics of the plan and the details of the map, someone may have been forced to choose between moving and stepping down. Rettig, Carberry, and Rod Sullivan all live within about a mile of each other on Iowa City's east side.

That proximity - Carberry just got elected but Terrence Neuzil also used to live in the same area - is part of the argument proponents made for districts. But it's also a historic anomaly.

The Board of Supervisors was long dominated by moderate to conservative rural Democrats, nominated in relatively low turnout June primaries (while the students are out of town) and elected with token or no opposition in partisan general elections. While they weren't all the traditional farm boys, as recently as 2000 all five supervisors were rural, even though nearly 60% of the county population was in Iowa City proper. So rural voters frustrated by "under" representation may, in fact, be upset about losing the historic OVER-representation they had.

District advocates may have been looking to Linn County, which passed districts in 2007, for guidance. Linn County has a district that encompasses almost all of the rural county, in a big donut around the Cedar Rapids-Marion urban area (with one bite taken out near the airport).

But Johnson County's census math is different. Redistricting law requires cities to be divided into as few districts as possible. According to an in-depth analysis of census data by redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering,  a Johnson County district system would produce three districts dominated by Iowa City, one district dominated by Coralville, and a final district that's more than half in North Liberty. Districts may be the most certain way to assure no rural supervisors at all.

There was also a partisan case for districts, as Johnson County had not elected a Republican supervisor in over 50 years. That argument was undercut during the 2013 petition drive by John Etheredge's upset special election win in March of that year. It proved a Republican CAN win county-wide, under the right circumstances.

The Republican's bigger problem is the calendar, not the map. With supervisors elected on a general election ballot, when partisanship is at its highest, they have a huge uphill fight in the most Democratic county in the state, and Etheredge lost his seat in 2014. Yet conservative candidates are often able to win non-partisan offices in lower turnout elections, like Iowa City council races.

(THAT's where we need districts, with no student elected to the Iowa City council since 1979. But that ship sailed when the Charter Review Commission closed shop this spring, and won't be reconsidered till 2024 if ever. Tangent over.)

Since the district petition was not filed, the 2016 supervisor election will be run under the current at-large system. Neuzil, Sullivan, and Pat Harney are up for re-election. The next opportunity to file a district petition will be in June 2017.

The lack of a petition also means Johnson County will go ten months without an election, the longest stretch since 1986-87. The last election was the November general election; the next is the September 8 school election.

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