JOHNSON COUNTY– On March 5, voters in Johnson County will go to the polls for the second time in about four months.
The special election is to determine which of two candidates will fill the Johnson County Board of Supervisors seat left vacant by Sally Stutsman, who resigned from the board in January after being elected to the Iowa House of Representatives. Stutsman’s term ran through December 2014.
When Stutsman resigned her position, a three-person committee consisting of Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert, Treasurer Tom Kriz and Recorder Kim Painter had 40 days to decide whether to appoint someone to the position, or to call a special election at an approximate cost of $65,000. On Jan. 8, the committee chose to do the latter, leaving one month for candidates to file papers with the county. As of the Feb. 8 deadline, the county received paperwork from two people: Democratic candidate Terry Dahms of Iowa City, and Republican candidate John Etheredge of rural Kalona.
Nominated by the Johnson County Democrats, Dahms has served as the chairman for the party at the county level since March 2011. With a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in management from Northwest Missouri State University, Dahms retired in 2008 after working in the Information Technology Services at the University of Iowa. He currently serves on Johnson County Planning & Zoning Commission, the county’s trail advisory committee and was a participant in the process of updating the county’s Land Use Plan.
Dahms said his active participation in those committees has afforded him a comprehensive understanding of land use and planning for future development in Johnson County.
“In the last four years, I have reviewed many applications to make sure they comply with our land use plan, so this isn’t something I have to learn. I am already familiar with it,” said Dahms. The Johnson County Land Use Plan is a tool which helps avoid conflict by providing predictability and rules that guide future development, something he is concerned his opponent would not uphold.
Dahm’s love of the outdoors has also influenced his political views. A long-time Boy Scout, Eagle Scout and member of Order of the Arrow, Dahms is an advocate for preserving and restoring the county’s native habitats and protecting its sensitive areas.
“I think Johnson County is rather unique in what they’ve done with land use,” said Dahms. “That is, we have attempted to specifically encourage development to occur in the north corridor.” It dissuades so-called leapfrog development readily found in other counties, Dahms believes, and avoids the cost of corresponding infrastructure like paved streets, water and sewer services, expenses that are counterproductive as far as keeping taxes low, he said.
Dahm’s other important issues include the proposed justice center, the regionalization of mental health services, and setting budget priorities.
On the proposed justice center, Dahms said he is most concerned about the problems presented by the aging county courthouse.
“It’s 112 years old, one of the oldest buildings in Johnson County and the one that is the most unchanged and unimproved,” said Dahms. The lack of a sprinkler system, a floor in the Clerk of Courts office that may be sagging under a huge collection of paper files, no space for clients to meet privately with their attorneys and lack of adequate space for the public to conduct routine business are all reasons he supports at least improvements to the courthouse.
Dahms said while the county is already committed to the concept of regionalized mental health care, he wants to make sure the new service agreements between Johnson and its six partnering counties are well thought out.
“There is a great deal of confusion as to how it is going to work,” said Dahms. “The funding from Des Moines seems to be inadequate, and they seemed to have skipped developmental disabilities. Counties have different populations and different client loads. We need to give this careful consideration.”
Etheredge, who currently lives near Kalona, has an associate’s degree in applied science from Kirkwood Community College. As a previous small business owner and an employee in both small businesses and larger corporations, Etheredge says his views have been shaped by the experiences of his father and many other hard-working farmers, agricultural-based business owners and families who support a more conservative approach to government and spending.
That’s why he first made a bid for one of the open supervisors’ seats in November, running on a nomination by petition. He was defeated by Democratic incumbent challengers Pat Harney, Terrence Neuzil and Rod Sullivan, but since Stutsman’s bid for the state House was also successful in that election, Etheredge was hopeful he would get a second shot. He won the nomination of the Johnson County Republicans on Feb. 6. This time around, he has enjoyed the support of a well-established party and a well-organized team to help him get his message out to voters.
“It’s been interesting to see the smoothness with which they act,” Etheredge said. “It’s awesome to see the connections I am able to make with their assistance, especially since we had to hit the ground running.”
However, his overall platform has not changed, he said in a telephone interview last week.
“I hope to be the voice for Johnson County rural residents, small businesses and farmers,” said Etheredge. “I am an advocate for lower taxes, fiscal responsibility, and making sure the county residents are as informed as they can be on the decisions their elected officials are making.”
Therefore, Etheredge said he will push for more transparency in government by making budget records more accessible and more easily digestible for the average taxpayer.
“I will do my best to do away with generalities,” he said. While newspapers publish legal notifications that provide general budget amounts, Etheredge feels more specifics should be readily available to the public. “Why can’t we post that information online, so we can see how much each elected and hired official makes, and also how each county department spends its budget? We need to know where our tax money is going in order to hold our elected officials responsible. Accountability is where it’s at.”
Etheredge’s main goal is to bring balance to the board, something he and his party feels has been lacking, as there has not been a Republican elected to serve on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors since 1962. Also, three of the four current supervisors live in Iowa City, while the fourth lives just a few miles north of the city limits, an imbalance of geographical representation, Etheredge believes.
“I will bring conservative fiscal responsibility, and work on eliminating inefficient county regulations,” said Etheredge. His father’s experience of trying to open an ice cream shop in an unincorporated area, thwarted because it didn’t fit with the county’s adopted Land Use Plan for development, is an example of what Etheredge sees as limited representation.
“Why do five people get to choose where they want growth in the county?” Etheredge asked back in November.
Last week, he phrased it similarly, concerned that the current board of supervisors wants to bring over-regulation to the rural parts of Johnson County.
“The board of supervisors has a lot of cities it interfaces with, but the county itself doesn’t have a lot of control within the city populace. There are things (the city governments) have done in the cities that the county (residents) want no part of.”
Etheredge referred to the property maintenance code introduced to the board of supervisors in 2010 that ultimately failed in a 3-2 vote. “Right now, there are people on the board that want to bring the city into the county, and that doesn’t work.”
Dahms, who lives near the intersection of Newport and Prairie du Chien roads, said he is able to provide the representation the rural population seeks.
“I am a resident of rural Johnson County. I live across a chip seal road from a century farm, not a busy highway. I was raised in a small rural farming community. I am familiar with farming and the concerns of farmers,” said Dahms.
Some Johnson County residents propose to balance board representation by electing supervisors by districts based on equal populations. A petition supporting that change has been circulating throughout the county; it requires 7,600 signatures in order to be put to public vote.
Etheredge thinks district representation is a good idea.
“The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is supposed to represent the entire population of Johnson County. The only way that is actually going to happen is to go to districts. Linn County did, and I am happy to say it has worked out quite well,” Etheredge said. “A number of my friends in Linn County… feel like their votes actually matter now. They are not just outvoted by the big city in Linn County. It has encouraged them to research candidates and get more involved because they feel like they have a say.”
Dahms said there may be a misconception that electing supervisors by district will balance rural and urban representation.
“It seems the impression is that it would be (divided) geographically,” said Dahms. “Redistricting in Iowa is done by population. If this petition is successful, the unintended consequences could be that, since we have concentrated populations in Coralville and Iowa City, that’s where the representatives will come from.”
For now, Johnson County voters will have a say in who fills the empty seat on the supervisors’ board between now and March 6.
Early voting is now available; deadline for requesting an absentee ballot by mail is this Friday, March 1. Early voting in person at the auditor’s office in the Johnson County Administration Building until March 4 and at satellite locations shown below.