WATERLOO - Black Hawk County voters Tuesday will do something they've done only three times in nearly five decades - elect three new members to the Board of Supervisors.

That's not a prediction. That's a fact.

For the first time in 46 years, no incumbent board members are up for re-election.

According to records kept by Grant Veeder, county auditor and elections commissioner, that hasn't happened since 1958, the year voters approved shrinking and reorganizing the board from seven district-elected members to five members elected at large.

The lack of incumbents on Tuesday's ballot is not by the current supervisors' choice in at least two cases, but because voters didn't want them back.

Democratic supervisors Brian Quirk, Maggie Stewart and Barbara Leestamper, all elected in 2000, will be gone after Jan. 1. Stewart, in her first term, and Quirk, in his third, were defeated in the June 8 Democratic primary.

Leestamper, in her second term and out of favor with her party for siding with Republicans Leon Mosley and Robert Smith on many budget issues, sat out the Democratic primary. She professes disgust with partisan politics but acknowledges she, too, may have been defeated. In August, Leestamper decided not to run again after toying with an independent candidacy.

Throw in Democrat Supervisor Craig White's ouster by Smith in the 2002 election, and that means the board will have seen an 80 percent turnover in two years. Only Mosley has survived.

There's a reason for turnover, according to the woman who has perhaps served more time on the board than any other living person. The current supervisors aren't working together, said Sonia Johannsen, who served 16 years.

"You have to have five people active," Johannsen said. "It's basically an administrative job. Some do try, but they're not together. Until we have everyone doing his share - and one guy or two can't do it all - that's how county government has gotten into this mess."

Seven candidates - Democrats Tom Little, John Miller and Shane Schellhorn; Republicans Joyce Coil, Scott Jordan and Steve Schmitt; and independent Mike LaCoste - are running for the three open board seats. Voters cast ballots for three of the seven. The top three vote-getters win.

The candidates have said the public is fed up with the board's bickering and political gamesmanship. That behavior deflects attention from problems such as sagging financial reserves, skyrocketing employee health insurance costs and physical facilities rife with problems, such as the county jail.

The question is whether any of the seven contenders can do better.

Johannsen says they're going to have to work at it.

"The first thing they ought to do is pick up the Code of Iowa and find out what their job is," Johannsen said. "They don't ever take the time to learn what they're supposed to be doing. It's dry reading, but it tells you exactly what you're supposed to do."

Johannsen served her years on the board in two separate stints - from 1976-88 and 1994-98. She tried a comeback this year but failed to make the cut in the Republican primary.

"People somehow have forgotten completely that essentially the board's job is rural, and that's getting kind of shuffled off to the corner," said Johannsen, also a former mayor of La Porte City. "… Most of them don't even know their rural constituents."

Johannsen said county government has three major functions.

"Serve the rural areas like a mayor and city council does inside of the city. They are the local arm of state government. And they provide the human service functions within the whole county for those people who are poor or disabled," she said.

County government normally functions with a bipartisan board. Only been three times in 46 years have all five seats been occupied by one party.

Former supervisor Jack Roehr, a Democrat, served two terms. During the first, all five members were Democrats. During the second, the board was split between Democrats and Republicans.

Different philosophies - liberal and conservative - existed regardless of which party dominated - even when there were five Democrats, Roehr said. But basic tasks had to be done.

"The budget is the biggest thing. It's very difficult," Roehr said. But the board always seemed able work through the process in consultation with other elected officials and department heads.

"I've got to commend (Treasurer) Barb Freet, (Recorder) Pat Sass and Grant Veeder for assisting the board," he said.

"My thought is that at the county level, I personally could see no problem having (government) nonpartisan," Roehr said. He cited the city of Waterloo, where he served 10 years on the City Council, as an example. That, however, would require a change at the state level.

"Most of the things you do in county government are not Democrat or Republican," Johannsen said.

"You need to provide money for the treasurer so she can do her job. You figure out how much the treasurer has to do, look at the number of staff, and say, 'OK, that seems reasonable.'"

It doesn't need to be difficult, she says.

"It has nothing to do with being Democrat or Republican, but what's right for Black Hawk County," Johannsen said. "People philosophically different can come to some common sense decisions - if they have any common sense."

Pat Kinney can be contacted at (319) 291-1484 or pat.kinney@wcfcourier.com

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