Thursday, September 30, 2010

Our View - Trying to cross Johnson County's urban-rural divide

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 26, 2010.

During last week's special election, there seemed to be a question as to whether the supervisors represent all county residents or only those in the unincorporated area. Although the supervisors do represent everyone in the county, regardless of where they are from, they also have a special obligation to be attentive to those county residents who live outside the city. Otherwise, the urban-rural divide in the county is likely to keep expanding.

That divide was evident in the Jan. 19 election results. Democratic incumbent Janelle Rettig won with 58 percent of the countywide vote, compared with 39 percent for Republican challenger Lori Cardella and 3 percent for Independent challenger Jim Knapp. Rettig also won with early voters (73 percent, compared with 24 percent for Cardella and 3 percent for Knapp) and with Election Day voters in Iowa City -- 64 percent, compared with Cardella's 33 percent and Knapp's 3 percent. But for Election Day voters outside of Iowa City, Cardella won with 55 percent -- compared with Rettig's 40 percent and Knapp's 4 percent.

The results are similar to what happened when voters were asked to decide the $20 million conservation bond issue in 2008. Because the election required a supermajority of 60 percent, the "Yes" folks -- led by Rettig -- made it over the countywide threshold by less than 1 percent. But the victory came largely because of the measure passing 70-30 in Iowa City. The "No" folks -- led by Cardella and others -- kept the measure from getting even a simple majority in the areas of the county outside of Iowa City.

(The comparison between the elections isn't exactly apples to apples, however. The 2008 conservation bond issue was put to the voters during a presidential election with distinct precinct ballots that allowed the auditor's office to go back and separate the early voting by district. In the Jan. 19 special election, every ballot was the same, and the auditor's office is not able to go back and separate the early votes by precinct.)

The 2008 election showed there was a mandate for conservation, but a mandate that was limited to voters in Iowa City and Coralville. That makes sense, of course, because it's the urban residents who were most worried about losing their connection to the countryside. But the concerns over the growth of county government have only expanded in the past 15 months. And those concerns were politicized -- especially in the rural areas -- after the initial appointing of Rettig fill out the remainder of the late Larry Meyers' term.

Unfortunately, those concerns probably will continue to rise as the supervisors decide:

• whether to raise pay for county officials and employees and

• whether to increase the rural tax levy in the next fiscal year to provide more money for secondary roads maintenance.

We think Rettig was the best candidate to figure how to represent all county residents, but now she and the other board members have to figure out how to supervise effectively in a county in which the urban-rural divide keeps growing.

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