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Trying to fill the void

Johnson County to hold special election Dec. 18 for supervisor vacancy
A Chicago Cubs shirt covers the late Kurt Friese’s seat Wednesday, Nov. 7. Friese died Friday, Oct. 26, leading the Committee of Johnson County officers to call for a special election to fill his seat. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

IOWA CITY– Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Friese, 54, died on Friday, Oct. 26. His unexpected death sent shockwaves through the county, which have turned into a scramble to find a replacement to fill out the remaining two years of his term.
A committee of county officers: Auditor Travis Weipert, Recorder Kim Painter and Treasurer Tom Kriz met publicly Wednesday, Nov. 7, to discuss either making an appointment to finish out the remaining two years of Friese’s term, which expires on Dec. 31, 2020, or to hold a special election. Weipert was present by phone due to an illness. The trio was charged with the role per Iowa Code 69.8, which spells out the statutory role of the auditor, recorder and treasurer to fill the vacancy.
“We’re here today because of a great loss,” Painter told the packed board room, “Kurt was a husband, a father, businessman, activist, a chef and a mentor. He was many things to many people, all of them quite wonderful.”
Eleven members of the public voiced their opinions and concerns regarding appointment versus a special election.
Peggy Loveless, a friend of the Friese family, expressed the family’s desire to see Supervisor Mike Carberry appointed. Carberry’s term expires on Dec. 31 after coming in third in a June 5 primary election, which saw Supervisor Janelle Rettig and newcomer Pat Heiden advance to the Nov. 6 general election. “Not only does he have the experience of being a current board member,” Loveless said, “they trust Mike.”
Becky Hall also spoke in favor of Carberry being appointed, noting Carberry and Friese shared the same views and voted alike. Lynn Gallagher of Solon also supported appointing Carberry, “to continue the values that Kurt Friese had, and I think we’re tired of elections.”
Two other speakers supported Carberry’s appointment, while six others called for a special election. An election, they said, would give the community the opportunity to evaluate who should fill the position.
County Attorney Janet Lyness stated citizens have the ability to call for an election, via petition, even if the committee were to appoint a replacement.
Painter acknowledged concerns about the cost of a special election, and pointed out an election now would be roughly 25 percent less than the last special election. “We used to talk about a $75-$80,000 election and now we’re looking at about $60,000. The voting process has become more efficient and far less costly,” she said. “Still, it is an important consideration.”
Painter explained the appointment process, comparing it to a job interview with the public being able to attend all meetings. Applications are placed online immediately, she said, “and any supporting letters of reference or testimony, which we invite, are also placed out there rapidly.” Meetings are posted in advance with the public welcome to attend interview sessions as well as the final vote to appoint a candidate.
Painter has been through the process five times.
“It is the handing over of the remnant of a term of an elected official to an unelected person, potentially one who has never stood before the public as a candidate,” she said.
Opportunities to appoint former supervisors do present themselves, “and they can be very attractive. But to me, for a two-year term, they don’t seem to be the best choice.”
Two years equals a congressional term, she said. “In my experience, the people of this county want to vote in that situation.” Painter acknowledged the consuming nature of the general election, but said, “People don’t want to be told by us who their leaders should be, I think they want to decide for themselves.”
Weipert agreed with Painter that if it were a five or six-month term, he’d likely vote for appointment. However, a two-year term is a long time.
“It’ll be a lot of policy decisions made by the individual, they’ll have budgets, all those types of things,” he said, noting he was with Painter in leaning toward an election.
But with the Voter ID law going into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, he expressed concerns crucial resources would not be updated in time to accommodate the requirement for voters to present a photo identification.
“Outside of that, I know we just came off a big election, but we can certainly pull one together quickly if that’s how the committee decides,” Weipert said.
Kriz, , said,
“There’s always mixed feelings,” said Kriz, who like Painter is a veteran of the process. Kriz noted he’s seen applications for appointment, special elections and elections called for after appointment. “We’ve covered the spectrum of what happens here.”
He expressed admiration for the better than 70 percent voter turnout for the general election in Johnson County, but also acknowledged voter fatigue.
Kriz agreed with Painter’s estimate of a $60,000 cost for an election, adding “There are times when money spent can be spent well.”
He said appointment of people with experience makes sense, but there are others with interest, who may also have experience as a former supervisor, that would be willing to step in without any interest to run beyond the end of the term.
“There is great merit,” Kriz said. “The learning curve for the board of supervisors is incredible. It is a learning curve that is steep. It isn’t something that can be picked up overnight, by any means. Experience is a great asset there.”
Another asset, Kriz said, is people wanting to become involved in politics, and willing to step up and assume leadership roles.
“I’ve always leaned toward the appointment process,” he said, “But I certainly see both sides of this. Sixty thousand dollars is a lot of money. But there’s thousands of people that I hope would vote in this election. I would hope if we call for an election, that we would not see that normal six or eight percent (of eligible voters turning out). I would hope people would be energized enough to come out and show us some of the numbers we saw (in the general election).”
Kriz asked Weipert if his staff could handle quickly organizing an election, especially in the wake of the general. “Obviously we are tired, but it’ll be only one item on the ballot, so there’s a lot less work there,” Weipert answered. “Fatigue is a concern, but if the committee decides to move in that direction, our office will make sure it gets pulled off.”
Painter and Weipert voted for a special election with Kriz opposed.
Lyness advised the committee Iowa Code mandates a special election be held at the earliest practical date, which was determined to be Tuesday, Dec. 18.
With the date set, the Republican and Democratic parties sprung into action, meeting to set dates for nominating conventions.
Before the conventions, the potential field of candidates began to take shape. Royceann Porter announced her candidacy to media present at the meeting immediately after adjournment. KCRG TV has reported Carberry was “considering” running, and cited KCJJ radio, who said former supervisor Pat Harney was thinking about running for the Democratic nomination as well.
On the Republican side, Phil Hemmingway has expressed his intention to run again. Heiden and Rettig were the top-two vote getters in the three-way race for supervisor with Heiden capturing 41 percent of the vote (41,954), Rettig taking 38 percent (38,879) and Hemingway finishing with 21 percent (21,109).
Nomination forms are available online at www.johnson-county.com or in-person at the auditor’s office. Full status political parties will nominate at their respective conventions while others desiring to run will need to file a petition with at least 250 signatures.
The deadline for filing is 5 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 26. The deadline for voter pre-registration and to request an absentee ballot is Friday, Dec. 5, at 5 p.m. The last day for early voting will be Monday, Dec. 17, between 7:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The polls will open on election day, Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 7 a.m. and close at 9 p.m.