JOHNSON COUNTY– While Janelle Rettig already believes she lives in the best place on earth, she won’t stop trying to make it better.
Rettig has announced her intent to run for re-election to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors this November. Appointed in 2009 to fill the vacancy left by the passing of supervisor Larry Meyer, Rettig was then elected to the seat in a 2010 special election, and re-elected in November of the same year.
“Some people think I’ve already served two terms because I’ve been through two elections,” she joked.
Rettig was involved in local and countywide issues long before being elected into office, so many of the decisions she faces as a supervisor are topics familiar to her from the inside out and bottom up. Before and during her tenure as a supervisor, she has served on numerous boards, committees and commissions, from neighborhood associations to state level policy groups, tackling topics from juvenile justice to successful aging, wading knee-deep in issues like environmental preservation, the distribution of mental health services and the protection of human rights, and advocating for everything from small business to transportation.
This wide range of experiences gave Rettig a good base to begin with, she said. As a self-described methodical student who wants to know everything there is to know about a topic from the outset, she has learned to be more agile in an office that must deal with hundreds of different issues in a given week.
Still, said Rettig, her governing style is to be hands-on and always accessible: hands-on, she said, in terms of getting out and experiencing the county the way its residents do.
“Five or six years ago the roads were in bad shape, and we weren’t keeping up with general maintenance, let alone with improvements. I knew that from driving hundreds of miles of roads myself,” said Rettig. “So every year I try to take the opportunity when I can to quite literally drive up and down the roads and draw them on a map so I know which ones I’ve driven.”
This orderly analysis of county road conditions has driven her public policy on the issue, Rettig said, and a push for a better overall road plan at the county level.
“We have invested millions of additional dollars in both maintenance and improving roads, and have been creative in how to generate revenues to do that without dramatically raising taxes,” said Rettig, by phasing projects and using short-term bonding. “We are in second year of a maintenance plan which we’ve never had before. It’s a great road map of what we intend to do and why. So now when people ask when their road is going to be fixed, I can honestly tell them.”
And accessible, Rettig added, by making herself available to staff and the public as much as possible.
“I’ve given out my cell phone number to the world. I use Facebook , Twitter, Instagram. I go to dozens of community events a month,” she said. While supervisors are not required to do so, Rettig finds it beneficial.
“It’s important to be engaged in our communities and be accessible to random people who stop me and ask questions. Elected officials should be out and around people who may or may not think like themselves,” she said.
Rettig is most proud of the level of transparency the county and its administration has achieved in recent years. Winner of two Sunshine Review awards for openness in government, the county website now includes full videos of the board’s work sessions, formal and informal meetings, and nearly every county document considered public record, all available with just the click of a mouse.
“I got the first notice (of the Sunshine Review) and we were scored with a C,” she said. “I took that to the Internet Technology department, and they took it as a personal challenge to raise that score.” The drive to improve public access to documents and the board’s environmental sustainability plan has pushed the county to find new ways to use technology to reduce paper consumption and make information readily available.
“Because of my experiences engaging in government, that’s very important to me,” said Rettig.
Other recent accomplishments Rettig is pleased about include the 1105 Project– a space-sharing collaboration by the Crisis Center of Johnson County, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, the National Alliance on Mental Health of Johnson County (NAMI-JC) and Iowa City’s Free Lunch Program, for which the county sold for $1 its former Public Health building– the progress on establishing new uses for the historic County Poor Farm, and the county’s advances in trails and land conservation. Rettig thinks these three ventures represent key directions for the county in the near future: expansion of the recreational trail network, the historical interpretation of the county and the collaboration of social service agencies. She believes the connection of the Hoover Nature Trail to the Cedar Valley Trail could create a national destination, and that means increased commerce for the communities throughout the county.
The economic considerations are almost always foremost in her mind when making decisions, Rettig said.
“In everything, budgeting is a priority for me. How do we become more efficient, manage our growth, and get services to people who need it in the most cost-effective way?” Rettig said. The county’s population has dramatically increased, and therefore, so have the demands on services; particularly in a place like Johnson County, she said, one of the most welcoming and inclusive places for people with diverse needs.
“We are a magnet community for people who are different. It’s simply the best place on the face of the planet to live, so it doesn’t matter whether you are a middle class, two-parent family with kids or a person with disabilities or a person in retirement. You want to live here because there’s a lot to do. It’s a fun, creative, enriching place to live, with lots of programs that allow you to participate fully in our communities.”
The challenge she looks forward to is to continue to provide those enriching services on a balanced budget. Johnson County departments continue to document record-setting demands on services, such as ambulance calls, medical examiner services, SEATS rides and even things like record numbers of car purchases. Rettig said she spends hundreds of hours a year going over spreadsheets and financial reports to figure out how to pay those bills but ease the pain of taxes, especially when much of the county’s potential revenues are tied up in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts in the cities.
“Every penny we can save allows us to deliver more services or repair more roads. I see that as a way to control costs so we can deliver what people actually want from us,” she said.
Not every decision is rooted purely in finances, though. In the last four years, Rettig and the board have weathered some controversial storms that are emotional and political issues for many county residents: a proposed rural property maintenance code, a twice-failed justice center referendum and a land use plan that has moved toward clustered rural development put the board through its paces, with many heated public hearings, impassioned debates, and a lot of media coverage.
However, Rettig said she feels comfortable that in all of the wrangling, the depth and breadth to which she researches, listens to people from all corners of the county, and answers questions with complete honesty has allowed her to remain steadfast in her convictions and consistent in her votes.
“I don’t care if I’ve known you for 25 years or I just met you, you will get the same treatment,” she said. “It doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing. No matter how many people are in the room or who is yelling at me, I am going to do what I think is fair. Property owners should have that trust with their government that if they abide by the rules, they will be allowed to do the project regardless of what their neighbors think.”
That’s not to say rules can’t be changed, Rettig said.
“I don’t know of a county in the state of Iowa that has a more environmentally friendly, more caring land use plan than Johnson County, but can it be improved? Absolutely,” she said. Significant amendments have addressed light pollution, imposed rules on multiple special events sites, and required storm water management plans for new subdivisions, for example, and Rettig noted that the whole document will be up for a complete revision in the next few years, with plenty of opportunity for public input.
“If the motivations are right, and you’ve studied the issue from every angle, weighed all the pros and cons, and you think it’s in the best interest of all of the people of Johnson County– I think it’s a bit easier to sleep at night. I am willing to expand our sensitive areas, willing to make our conservation efforts stronger, but in the end we have to follow the rules we have on the table now,” she said.
Whether you agree with her or not, Rettig encourages civil discourse in lieu of the vitriolic polarization that has become so prominent in today’s society.
“I want voters to ask hard questions. I want them to demand that the county expand and grow, and I want them to care about their neighbors a little bit more,” she said.
“I sometimes think our society has changed to a “me” society, and I think people can choose a different path and not be so divisive. That doesn’t mean you lose your voice. You can disagree passionately, and if you have convictions, state them, but don’t try to tear someone else up because of it.”
And at the very least, she said, offer your opinion by going to the polls June 3. The candidate filing period ended March 26, and two others have filed nomination papers to run on the Democratic ballot for supervisor on June 3: Democrat Mike Carberry and Democrat Lisa Green-Douglass.
“We have really great turnout in presidential and gubernatorial races, but in every other election virtually nobody turns out,” said Rettig. “People forget that the power is actually in the local elections for city councils, school boards and the county. They are the people who impact our lives the most.”