Home rule, the Iowa legislature, and your county board

Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Friese sounds the alarm about a Republican bill that’s stayed mostly below the radar. -promoted by desmoinesdem

The Iowa Senate is considering a bill that would force Iowa’s ten most populous counties (and only those ten) to use districts to elect supervisors. Not only that, but supervisors would be elected only by the people in those districts, not by everyone in the county. It’s called House File 2372, and it’s a bad idea. And I say this not just because I have a dog in this hunt.

The numbers say I’d stand a pretty good chance if I were to run for re-election, with or without the districts (no decisions on that yet, by the way, though at this point I don’t see why I wouldn’t). But the aim of the plan–which depending on who you ask is to get either more Republican or more rural representation on the board–is misguided at best, and foolish at worst. There is no legal way to create a majority rural (or majority Republican) district in #JoCo. Why? Because math.

I’ll leave the wonkier details to resident election data guru John Deeth, who handled it quite aptly on his blog a while ago. The long and short of it is that no matter how you draw districts, here or in at least eight of the other nine counties (Woodbury: maybe), no model shows both evenly distributed districts AND a majority of either rural residents or Republicans.

Besides, historically, Johnson County has done just fine with rural representation, and today two of the five live in unincorporated Johnson County (myself and Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass), and two others grew up on farms (Supervisors Mike Carberry and Rod Sullivan).

It’s another aspect that I feel is more important, though. The Board of Supervisors is a unique governing model in the U.S., in that it is both legislative and executive. As such, as a member of that Board, I am a lot more comfortable being accountable to ALL of the people of Johnson County, not just one-fifth of them. I would hope those constituents would feel the same way.

In addition, a cynical person might ask: “If each of the five supervisors represent only their own districts, and no one else, why would they vote to support, for example, a road or bridge repair for one of the other districts instead of for one that helps their own constituents?” That could lead to either gridlock or some pretty shady horse trading, don’t you think?

This bill is a result of the same sort of tunnel vision that led to the extremely ill-advised reduction of the Linn County Board of Supervisors from five members to three. Proponents of that measure would have you believe not only that three people can do the work of five, but that they can save taxpayers money doing it. That just ain’t so, because, again, math.

As things stand right now, decisions about district representation and the number of people on the board of supervisor are up to the residents of each individual county. The Republicans in the Iowa legislature want to take that choice away from you, but only if you live in an urban (read: “majority Democratic”) county. The rest can do as they please, apparently. Why they believe the ten most populous counties need this kind of oversight and the rest don’t, I will leave up to your imagination.

House members approved House File 2372 earlier this month on a party-line 58 to 38 vote. The bill needs to clear the Senate Local Government Committee by March 16 to stay alive during the 2018 session.

UPDATE from desmoinesdem: This bill was added to the Senate’s “unfinished business” calendar on March 15. So it’s not quite dead. Leadership can call bills back from “unfinished business,” though many bills never return from that list.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.

  • Story

    I have friends in Story County and know it pretty well. Story County currently has three at-large supervisors, two Republicans and a Democrat. With some exceptions, they all seem to get along pretty well. And one of the Republicans has a very strong interest in water quality, which is not common among Republican officials in Iowa.

    Even from a Republican point of view, I don’t see how forcing Story County to go to a district system would really improve things. It would be much more likely, if anything, to increase partisan arguments, policy disputes, and territorial squabbling.

    And Story County does have more registered Democrats than Republicans. If the real goal of the bill is just to cause more teeth-gritting and general unpleasantness in urban counties, and to make it harder for those counties to get things done, I’d say it’s right on target.