Let the people vote for their county supervisor

January 12, 2023 11:39 am

Voters like this one likely will not be able to cast a ballot for a vacancy on the Scott County Board of Supervisors. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.My wife says I’m tilting at windmills.

I suppose she’s right. But since her claim is just a metaphor and no real damage will be done, here goes: The next member of the Scott County Board of Supervisors ought to be elected by the people.

I know: Crazy, right?

Who would think when there’s a spot open on the county board that the people of the county ought to choose who fills it?

Call me crazy.

Unfortunately, that’s not how we do things around here.

A Scott County vacancy board, made up of the county treasurer, recorder and auditor, is headed toward selecting someone to fill the vacancy on the board of supervisors created when Tony Knobbe was elected treasurer.

Sarah Watson at the Quad-City Times reported Friday the vacancy panel was unanimous in moving toward making an appointment and asked that people apply for the post by Jan. 24.

Knobbe, as treasurer, along with Recorder Rita Vargas and Auditor Kerry Tompkins, get to make the appointment. Vargas is the only Democrat on the panel. (Vargas told me Friday she prefers an election but went along with an appointment with the caveat that applications be accepted instead of Republicans just picking whomever they wanted.)

The procedure for filling vacancies by appointment is set out in state law. But the law also allows for a special election if the vacancy panel calls for one – or if 10% of the people who voted in the last presidential or gubernatorial election petition for it.

In short, neither is likely to happen.

I suppose I should just accept it. But there’s something stubborn in me that just won’t let it go. I’ll explain why in a minute.

First, some history.

In Scott County, as elsewhere in Iowa, both parties stiff-arm voters when it comes to filling county vacancies.

After the 2008 election, a Democrat-controlled vacancy board in Scott County appointed Democrat Jeff Liske to replace Supervisor Roxanna Moritz, who left the board to become county auditor.

In 2021, a Republican majority on the board voted to fill the auditor’s position by appointing Tompkins, a Republican, after Moritz retired early.

These are the more recent examples, but it’s happened before. Like I said, this is a bipartisan thing.

It shouldn’t be this way.

County supervisors make important decisions, such as whether to build big new juvenile detention facilities and how to fund law enforcement; they make decisions guiding how to provide emergency and mental health services, how to allocate federal ARPA money – how to spend tens of millions of property tax dollars you and I sent to the county building twice a year.

The people making these decisions ought to have to make their case to all of us that they’re worthy of our trust. They shouldn’t be able to just appeal to a select few.

Unfortunately, state law makes it hard for the people to bypass the appointers.

It’s difficult enough to get the signatures of 10% of the voters, but Iowa law only gives petitioners two weeks to do it.

Think about that.

Political parties, like most other volunteer organizations in this county, just don’t have the resources to run big petition drives.

Two years ago, county Democrats said they’d gathered more than 6,200 signatures to try to force a special election for auditor. But as laudable as that was, it still fell far short of the more than 9,000 needed.

This year, the bar is a lower because we just had a midterm, not a presidential election. The signature threshold this time is about 6,400 signatures.

Possible? I suppose it is. But it doesn’t look like the county Democratic Party is going to mount a petition drive. Matt Trimble, the county party chair, confirmed as much to me Friday, saying the party has limited volunteer resources.

Some probably won’t like the decision, but I can see where reaching the signature threshold would be a challenge. In 2021, Democrats were gathering signatures over the summer, when it was easier to get out among larger outdoor gatherings. This time, in the dead of winter, it would undoubtedly be more difficult.

So, wouldn’t it just be easier for the three members of the vacancy panel who owe their jobs to the people to return some of that power?

Neither Democrats nor Republicans, when they’re in the majority, seemed to see the wisdom in that.

Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of excuses for why it’s not a good idea to let the people decide.

The appointers will say they were elected, too, and that state law gives them the appointment authority. Which is does. But why choose to collect power in the hands of the few when the law also provides an opportunity to include the people?

It would be one thing if a vacancy came a few weeks or months before a regularly scheduled election. Then it might be impractical to hold a special vote. But this appointment will be for two years.

Another reason they give is that special elections cost money.

In this instance, the auditor estimated the cost would be about $125,000. (Which is significantly higher than in 2008 when the Times reported a countywide election would cost $65,000.)

I understand this amount of money isn’t nothing. But even $125,000 is just 1% of the extra cash in the county’s general fund budget. Not the entire general fund, mind you, but 1% of the unassigned balance. As for the entire $80 million in the general fund, it accounts for a fraction of 1%.

Wouldn’t it be worth spending some of that money so that all the people got to choose who will join the other four supervisors in deciding how to spend that $80 million — not to mention the rest of the budget?

In the past, news organizations and editorial boards would demand the people be let in on this decision. I did it when I was editorial page editor of the Times two years ago. One of my predecessors did the same in 2008.

Unfortunately, with a weakened media, elected leaders are less inclined to listen to those voices, even when they do speak up.

So, what are we left with?

Unfortunately, we’re left with power exercised by the few.

It shouldn’t work this way. But it will until enough of us get together to push over that windmill.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.