Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bill Would Force Supervisor Districts On Biggest Counties

What local control?

In yet another below the radar bill in the Iowa Legislature, the state's five largest counties would be required to elect supervisors by district, and would not have the option for at-large supervisors that the 94 other counties have.

House File 486, introduced by the House Local Government Committee, "requires a county with a population of 130,000 or greater to select and maintain a representation plan for the county board of supervisors, whereby the county is divided into districts and members of the board of supervisors must reside in a district and be elected by the registered voters of that district."

That 130,000 is suspiciously close to Johnson County's 2010 Census count of 130,882, and Black Hawk's 131,090. Both counties elect supervisors at large, as does Scott County. The state's largest county, Polk, already has a district plan.

Linn County is in limbo. They voted in 2007 to expand the Board of Supervisors from three elected at large to five elected from districts. Last fall, voters rolled the number of supervisors back to three, but the question of whether to elect from districts or at large is not yet settled.

(Also of note: These five counties, along with Story, were the only places in the state to vote for Hillary Clinton last fall. And another below the radar bill that singles out the largest five counties, House Study Bill 73,  would allow rural townships to secede and join neighboring counties.)

A proposed amendment by Democratic Rep. Chris Hall would lower the population bar to 100,000, which would have the effect of adding only Woodbury, his own county. Woodbury County already has districts, but their plan only requires supervisors to live in the district, and all voters in the county can vote on every district's race. 

Under current law, petitioners have one opportunity each two years to file a petition to change the structure of the county board. The bar is high - 10% of the vote for governor or president. In Johnson County that would be about 7700 signatures due by June 1 of this year. Local Republicans have reportedly been interested in a district system for years but have never filed a petition.

If a petition is filed, voters choose from three plans in an August election:
  • Supervisors elected at large (Johnson County's current system)
  • Supervisors elected from districts. Supervisors must live in district, but all county voters may vote on every seat. (Woodbury County's current system)
  • Supervisors elected from districts, must live in district. and only district voters may vote on their district seat (Linn County's system until last year)
House File 486 would take that choice away from the voters of the five biggest counties, and would require the plan that would only let district voters vote on their own district seat.

Historically, the argument for districts in Johnson County has been that rural voters are under-represented. But that hasn't been the case. As recently as 2000, all five supervisors had rural addresses. The three supervisors currently living in the Iowa City limits is just what the city would have based on its population under a district system.

If anything, a district system is the way to guarantee NO rural representation. Districting works by strict census numbers, with strict requirements.

2010 Johnson County Census

City 2010 Census
Iowa City 67,862
University Heights
(surrounded by Iowa City)
IC-UH Combined 68,913
Coralville 18,907
North Liberty 13,374
Tiffin 1,947
Hills 703
Lone Tree 1,300
Oxford 807
Shueyville 577
Solon 2,037
Swisher 879
City Total 109,444
Rural/West Branch Total 21,273
County Total 130,882

Ideal population for a district: 26,176

No city can be broken into more than the smallest possible number of districts. According to a 2013 comprehensive analysis by redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering, the population totals and districting rules do not allow for a rural dominated district. "You permanently lock in at least two from Iowa City and one from Coralville, and probably a third one from Iowa City and one from North Liberty."

The 2010 Linn County numbers did allow for a nearly all-rural district, but it was a monstrosity, a doughnut that surrounded the whole Cedar Rapids-Marion area.  Cedar Rapids had exactly three districts and the last district was Marion-dominated.

I haven't analyzed the numbers for Black Hawk and Scott but they are probably similar, with cities locking out rural representation.

The other way that mandatory districts hurt rural voters: If a board is dominated by urban members who never have to seek a rural vote, rural services will suffer. Why would a supervisor whose district is all in Iowa City want to pay for a road for rural Solon? (A bike path, MAYBE.)

If voters want to choose that system, they're making a mistake, but it's their choice. But once again, we see the pattern of this Republican legislature: Local control is fine, but only as long as we like what the locals are doing.

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