Iowa legislators aren’t reluctant to force their will on local governments these days. And now they may be headed toward changing the way people in Scott, Johnson and Black Hawk counties elect their county boards.
The Iowa Senate passed a bill last week, 34-13, requiring counties with a population of 125,000 or more to elect their supervisors with a district-based system. That means Scott, Johnson and Black Hawk counties would have to switch from electing supervisors at-large. The two other large counties, Polk and Linn, already use a district-based system.
Sen. Dawn Driscoll, a Williamsburg Republican, floor managed the bill and said last week the goal is to ensure “adequate representation,” though she didn’t elaborate on what that means.
The county boards in two of the three counties affected are dominated by Democrats, but I’m told much of the concern is geographic representation. Historically, rural parts of Iowa that exist in counties with relatively large cities have worried they won’t be adequately represented on these county boards.
Notably, the Iowa Farm Bureau was the only group listed as supporting the Senate bill. The Iowa State Association of Counties, Iowa State Association of County Supervisors and the Urban County Coalition all oppose the bill.
Regardless of motivation, the change would have a definite political impact in Scott County, where the board is all-Republican for the first time in about 30 years. (Incidentally, only one of the five supervisors on the board lives in Davenport, even though the city makes up a majority of the county’s population.)
A district-based system would probably flip at least one seat to the Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in the county, according to voter registration figures. Also, the city of Davenport would likely dominate at least one of the five districts to be created, and probably more. And it tends to vote for Democrats, although there are distinct Republican areas in the city, too.
I’m not sure what the political impact might be in Black Hawk and Johnson counties, but I did see an article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen from last year that said a Republican hadn’t been elected to the county board in Johnson County since 1956.
The Senate bill passed on a mostly party line vote, with Republicans for it and Democrats against. But state Rep. Ken Croken, a Davenport Democrat, told me he supports the change, too. Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said he supports a district-based system as well.
Already, a House bill has been placed on the calendar to make the switch for counties with 60,000 people or more. That would add three other counties, Dubuque, Pottawattamie and Story counties, that would have to shift from at-large elections to a district-based system.
Two other counties, Dallas and Woodbury, would be affected under the House bill, too. Those counties elect supervisors at- large but have district residency requirements. They would shift to district-based elections.
In both bills, the changes would take effect in 2024. Both require affected counties to form temporary redistricting commissions to draw boundaries.
Sen. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, told me that she opposed the bill because of a belief in local control. Which also was the complaint of Sen. Janice Weiner, an Iowa City Democrat who spoke out against the bill.
“This bill is another in a long series of attacks on local governance,” Weiner said during floor debate.
Weiner added it also would mean greater costs for counties, and that the change doesn’t apply to all counties. Originally, the Senate bill applied to counties with a population of 60,000 or more, but it was revised on the floor so that it only applied to the largest counties.
Scott County Board Chairman Ken Beck opposes the change, according to the North Scott Press, which reported on the proposal last week.
Supervisor John Maxwell, the vice-chair, also told me he’s not for the bill.
“I’m from Donahue …. but I represent all of the county,” Maxwell said. “I try to do the best job for all of the citizens of Scott County, and I think all of the citizens should elect the person they think would do the best job.”
Still, the legislation seems to have some momentum. Republicans in the Legislature tried to make this change in 2018 but weren’t successful. This could be the year they get it done.
One other note about the Senate legislation that’s important. If the bill passes, it could eliminate something I have complained about previously: The use of appointments, rather than elections, to fill supervisor vacancies. This bill would require a special election when such vacancies occur, according to a summary by the Legislative Services Agency.
That would be a good thing. For years, the powers that be in Scott County as well as in other counties in Iowa – whether they’re Democrats or Republicans – have filled vacancies by appointments rather than holding special elections.
The law does include a provision for voters to force a special election, but the signature threshold is high enough and the window to gather signatures so short that, at least in Scott County, petitioners haven’t been able to clear that bar in recent years. In fact, Democrats didn’t even try after Rita Rawson was appointed to the county board this year to fill the vacancy created by Tony Knobbe’s election as treasurer.
There’s obviously going to be negotiations over the conflicting provisions in the House and Senate bills, so it’s possible the voter empowerment provision could be dropped. Still, I’m told this change isn’t all that controversial.
It could be that by taking away a measure of local control with this legislation, lawmakers may also return some power to the people as well.
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It seems these proposals are not limited to Iowa. Colorado recently had a bill introduced to require 5 seats minimum per county board and be in district related seats. It was defeated in committee which simply means it will surface again. Enjoy the day!
On the face of it, I don't mind. It could reflect the economic and ethnic diversity, particularly among larger counties. Why not try it for a decade, see if it encourages more candidates to fun and increases voter torn out?