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County to hold Jan. 19 special election to fill supervisor vacancy

JOHNSON COUNTY– There will be a special election to fill a vacancy on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor Terrence Neuzil resigned his position to take a job in Kalamazoo County, Mich., effective Dec. 20, leaving an unfulfilled term that expires Dec. 31, 2016. According to Iowa law, the decision to either appoint someone or hold a special election to fill the reminder of Neuzil’s term falls to a committee of three.
County Auditor Travis Weipert, Recorder Kim Painter and Treasurer Tom Kriz met in open session Dec. 2 to make that determination and, within 30 minutes, ended with a 2-1 vote to hold a special election on Jan. 19, 2016.
Weipert opened the meeting to comments and six members of the public offered arguments for and against appointing someone to fill the vacancy.
Tom Carsner favored appointment, as he was most concerned about creating voter fatigue from too many consecutive elections in such close proximity.
“The time (of service) is relatively short, 11 months at most. Then there is the traffic jam of having a caucus Feb. 1, a special election right before or right after the caucus, and …you make it difficult for candidates to get their message out because the caucus sucks up all the energy in the room,” said Carsner. “A bigger reason is you have a primary election coming up in June, potentially three or four months later.”
Caroline Dieterle agreed with Carsner.
“I am also active in campaigns and know how much time and money it takes. Since it’s such a short appointment, and the office will be filled by election in the fall anyway, it’s an economy both for the county in terms of the money and for anybody who is interested in running campaigns,” said Dieterle.
Madison Township resident Lisa Green Douglass, who hopes to win the party’s nomination on Dec. 16 to be the Democratic candidate on the January ballot, countered that 11 months to serve is a long time. “When you think about the multifaceted job of the supervisors, one of the most important things is the responsibility they have to taxpayers. Taxpayers do have a right, for that length of time, to have say.”
Also planning to run in the January special election, as a non-party candidate, is North Liberty resident Chris Hoffman. Hoffman has served on the North Liberty City Council since 2007, having been re-elected to the position in 2011 and 2015. Hoffman and anyone else planning to run as a no-party candidate will need to secure 250 valid signatures on a petition by Dec. 28.
The only other person to announce his candidacy for the position is Kurt Friese, a rural Penn Township resident. Friese said in an email communication Tuesday he will not seek to fill the seat via the special election, but plans to run as a Democratic candidate in the June primary.
The cost to hold a special election was also a recurring point during both public comments and committee discussion. Weipert estimated expenses of between $15,000 to $20,000, depending on the number of satellite voting stations and the number of assets his office would choose to deploy.
Green-Douglass held that democracy has its price.
“Democracy is not free,” she said. “Historically, when there has been an appointment, there has been a special election anyway. Yes, if you decide on an election, we’d have the special election, the primary, and then the November election, but that’s part of our process as a democratic society.”
Mark Decker, of Iowa City, pointed to the political advantage an appointee would have if he or she decided to run after the appointment expired, suggesting the committee choose an applicant who would agree not to run for re-election. Painter responded while it had been discussed to appoint someone who only intended to fill the term and not run again, “it’s never quite as simple as the gambits that appear in these discussions. There are no safe bets,” she said.
If the committee had chosen to appoint, Dieterle reminded them of the “Slockett rule,” a policy instituted by former County Auditor Tom Slockett, that an appointee cannot have run and lost a previous race for supervisor.
“That person would be free to run again on their own any time, but to be given a leg up after having lost doesn’t seem fair to the voters,” said Dieterle.
Kriz said he disagreed with the policy and could not adhere to that rule.
“Not always the best person wins the election; I think we’ve seen that in presidential cycle in the past,” said Kriz. “Often, good people have lost elections at state levels and gone on to do many great things.”
But Kriz did favor appointing someone to the seat, also concerned too many elections would result in voter fatigue.
“People are already tired of some of the campaign commercials and everything that goes on. We need to keep in perspective that, while people have a right to vote at every level, sometimes the county level becomes the bottom of the food chain. Consequently it gets taken for granted. I’m really concerned this doesn’t take front stage of people’s minds with the presidential election cycle,” Kriz said. He noted the advantages to interviewing applicants with previous government experience, because the learning curve for county supervisors is huge, and, because his office deals with the county’s day-to-day expenses, he would prefer to save the money a special election would cost.
Painter said she strongly believes Johnson County citizens prefer elections over appointments, pointing to a 2009 committee decision to appoint Janelle Rettig to the board after the death of Supervisor Larry Meyers. The public subsequently produced an 8,000-signature petition to hold a special election, which Rettig then won.
As for the energy-consuming processes of caucusing, nominating and campaigning, Painter said she understood people’s concerns over “political minutia, of getting each party’s person nominated,” she said. But if local parties are becoming entrenched and stagnant, she continued, “What is the best way to inject a little disruption into that process and to enliven and challenge that process? To my mind, the best way to do that is to have a special election. It’s the most lively process at our disposal, and some real good could come of it. I think there will be broader involvement than just three people in a meeting room. I think it could be one of the most vigorous special elections we’ve ever had.”
Weipert also said he would like more involvement from the public in the decision.
“For me to sit up here and determine who is going to be the county supervisor for 140,000-plus people of this county… I would rather see the citizens of Johnson County pick who they want as their next supervisor, not just Travis Weipert, Tom Kriz and Kim Painter.”
Also, the possibility of receiving a petition for a special election after an appointment would crunch the time between votes even closer together.
“That would push us into the primary timeframe, and that would be horrendous for the auditor’s office. That’s a huge concern for me and my staff,” Weipert said.
After the 2-1 vote, with Kriz voting against it, Weipert’s office set the special election for Jan. 19.