Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 1, 2009
Our View - Officials need to be held to high standards
A three-person committee composed of the county auditor, treasurer and recorder is accepting applications to fill the seat sadly left open by the recent death of Supervisor Larry Meyers. The applicant the committee chooses to appoint will serve on the Board of Supervisors until the next countywide election, Nov. 2, 2010.
We usually prefer vacancies be filled by special election rather than appointment. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to put this race on ballot for the Nov. 3 city election. And because these are hard economic times, we don't think spending $75,000 for a special election is the best use of county funds.
Of course, if there is a candidate who wants this position badly enough to get 7,299 signatures on a petition and force a special election, then the decision is taken out of the committee's hands. But we think the committee made the right decision to appoint rather than order an election now.
And that's what makes it all the more important for the committee to be equally right about whom they appoint. The committee members need to make sure they choose the most qualified applicant, rather than limit their choice only to candidates who match their political ideology. If they don't appoint someone who instantly engenders countywide respect, then the county is likely to have to shell out the $75,000 on a special election anyway.
Serving in county government is often a thankless and sometimes an impossible job in Iowa. No matter how cost effectively any individual county operates, it can't by itself overcome the overwhelming inefficiency of having 99 individual counties in a state of barely 3 million people. The county lines were set in a different age, and their sheer number often becomes an argument against -- rather than for -- increasing local control of important issues about public safety, roads, human services, zoning and elections.
And with the county's political autonomy checked by the state government above and by city governments below, supervisors not only need to have a vision for how best to serve their constituents' needs, they also need to understand the limits of their office in order to take practical steps to enact those visions.
Voters usually get to decide which applicants have the right skill set for the job. The committee now needs to make sure that its appointee is up to the task.
Given the recent stories about the uncivil -- downright vulgar -- tone in some of Supervisor Rod Sullivan's e-mails to constituents, the committee will want to rank "effective communication skills" and "professional demeanor" on the top of the list of qualities it is seeking from applicants. And given how supervisors Terrence Neuzil and Pat Harney seem to have a lackadaisical attitude concerning how Sullivan's comments affect the board as a whole, the committee might also want to look for an applicant with experience in human relations.
We know that being a supervisor can be a frustrating job, but that's not an excuse for an elected official to take their frustrations out on the constituents they represent. We expect law enforcement officers to maintain their composure despite how verbally belligerent a citizen might be. We definitely expect our elected officials to maintain their professionalism as they hear from the public in person or electronically.
Because these officials have asked the public to place them in a position of trust, their actions and their words will be judged by a higher standard.