Thursday, June 01, 2017

Once Again, No Supervisor District Vote in Johnson County

Linn County looks set for yet another election about government reorganization on August 1. But once again, a deadline has passed, and Johnson County will not be considering a change to a district system for electing county supervisors this year. So I'm doing the every other year update of this post.

Johnson County Republicans have been on-again, off-again working on a district petition for several years, with varying degrees of intensity. It's hard to collect over 7700 signatures (10% of the presidential vote) 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.

A successful petition drive would have forced an August 1 special election like the one Linn County will have. Linn County voters will see three choices:
  • An at large system, like Johnson County now has
  • A system where supervisors must live in a district, and only voters in the district vote on the seat. This is the system Linn County voted for in 2007 that took effect with the 2008 election.
  • A modified district system where supervisors must live in a district, but the entire county votes on every seat.
Last year, Linn County voters elected to reduce the number of supervisors from five to three. That would have required a new map with three districts instead of five - which may still happen. But that's now on hold till after the election, since voters may choose the at-large plan instead.

The politics in Linn County seem to have changed; many of the people who advocated for five supervisors from districts in 2007-08 were advocating for three supervisors last year (pay raises seemed to be the issue), and seem to favor at-large representation now.

In addition to now a third separate vote to re-arrange the Linn County Board of Supervisors, the city of Cedar Rapids voted in 2005 to change its form of government from one of the last commissioner systems in the nation to a part time mayor-council system.

As for Johnson County, the push for districts seems to have peaked a few years ago and centered around a perceived "lack of rural representation." Beginning in 2009, we've had three Board members living within about a mile of each other on the east side of Iowa City: current members Janelle Rettig and Rod Sullivan, along with first Terrence Neuzil (who moved to the west side and then resigned for a job out of state), and now Mike Carberry. They're presently joined on the Board by Lisa Green-Douglass of rural North Liberty and Kurt Friese of rural Iowa City. All are Democrats, which almost - almost - goes without saying.

The Johnson County 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 lives in Iowa City proper. So rural voters frustrated by "under" representation may, in fact, have been upset about losing the historic OVER-representation they had.

District advocates may also have been looking to Linn County. The 2011 five district map created a rural "donut" district (with one bite taken out near the airport) that encompasses almost all of Linn County outside the Cedar Rapids-Marion urban area.

This time, if Linn County chooses districts, they're dividing by three, not by five. Redistricting law requires cities to be divided into as few districts as possible.That means Cedar Rapids, with almost exactly 60% of the population, will be split into two, with some small rural fragments or maybe Hiawatha or Robins added on (I haven't done the math in that much detail) to pad the population to a third of the county each. The third district will be dominated by Marion and will include most of the outlying parts of the county.

Johnson County's census math is different, and in our case districts may be the most certain way to assure no rural supervisors at all. According to a 2013 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. 

Back to that "almost*", the case for districts in Johnson County was also partisan, as we had not elected a Republican supervisor in over 50 years. That argument was undercut during the middle of the 2013 district petition drive by John Etheredge's upset win in a low turnout special election. It proved a Republican, and a rural one at that, CAN win county-wide, under exactly the right circumstances. However, Etheredge lost to Rettig and Carberry in the high turnout, highly partisan 2014 general election, where we were the number one Braley county and the only county Jack Hatch won.

In the alternate universe where a petition plan was dropped on Johnson County today and a district plan won on August 1, Sullivan, Green-Douglass, and Friese would have had the four year terms they won last year cut short. Districts would have been drawn and all five supervisors would have been on the ballot next year. Also, depending on the specifics of the plan and the details of the map, someone may have been forced to choose between moving, stepping down, or duking it out in the primary..

Instead, the three supervisors elected last year stay on until 2020. The two elected in 2014, Rettig and Carberry, both seem likely to seek re-election next year; Carberry briefly looked at running for governor but decided not to jump in. Pat Heiden, who lost narrowly to Friese for the third and final ticket through the 2016 primary, also looks likely to run again.

There was, briefly, another effort at supervisor districts this year - in the legislative session. A proposed bill would have forced all counties over 130,000 population - suspiciously, that number is set just under Johnson County's 2010 Census total - to adopt the plan where supervisors must live in a district, and only voters in the district vote on the seat. But that bill went nowhere.