Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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December 20, 2009

Sullivan’s Salvos 12/22/09

Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it. Happy Holidays to the rest. I sincerely hope your holiday season is happy and healthy for you and yours.

I am driving for the homeless shelter overflow project this week. It is important to remember that during this season where we spend hundreds of dollars, there are scores of our fellow citizens who have nowhere to sleep on a bitterly cold night.

It is particularly poignant given the story of the birth of Christ, and the fact that there was no room at the inn. How little things have changed in 2,000 years!

A million thanks to the Consultation of Religious Communities for organizing and running the overflow all these years.

I just got an E-mail from a friend who directed me toward a really neat site called “Corridor Barter”. The idea is that people in the corridor trade goods and services rather than spending money.

I think this looks pretty cool! Please see the attached link to the barter site. I am told it will improve as time goes on (they just wanted to get it going). Please forward it to anyone you think might be interested in posting services.

Johnson County is in the midst of an ongoing debate over what to do in cases of emergency. The recent weather has brought the conversation to the fore once again.

First, a bit of background: because a big part of what Johnson County does is public safety, several Johnson County departments never close. The Sheriff’s Office, Ambulance, Emergency Management, Secondary Roads, and Medical Examiner will never be closed – period. These are the folks the rest of us depend upon in emergencies, and I salute them.

The question is, what about the just under 400 county employees whose jobs are not related to public safety? Several years ago, an elected official made a declarative statement – “Johnson County never closes.” This has essentially been the law of the land ever since.

Meanwhile, Johnson County has experienced several different disasters, and the responses have been all over the board. The Treasurer, Recorder, and Auditor are independently elected Public Officials. The Board of Supervisors cannot technically make them do anything. Similarly, the County Attorney is independently elected; her situation is even more confusing, because she shares a Courthouse with State employees.

The Assessors are overseen by Conference Boards that only meet twice per year; typically, those Boards provide financial direction only, and offer little direction as to how the office should operate. These offices have closed on some occasions and not on others.

Many of the office workers are part of the same unions; it is obviously problematic to have one office treated differently than the others. In addition, it would be nice to be able to say, “Yes we are open,” or “No, we are not” without equivocating.

I have some strong feelings on this subject. I am put off by the whole macho we-never-close attitude. It is just plain stupid, frankly. We have tornado sirens going off, and some offices take cover while other workers just sit there. It is dangerous and dumb.

My proposal for addressing this situation is simple: I believe all 10 Elected Officials and all Department Heads should agree to defer to the judgment of the Sheriff. If he says take cover, we take cover. If he says we need to close, we close.

The reasons are many:

First, the Sheriff has the proper levels of knowledge and expertise. He has access to all the necessary info. No one is better suited to making such a call.

Secondly, the Sheriff has the required gravitas. If the Sheriff decides we are closed, we are closed. Disobey his order, and you are breaking the law.

Thirdly, we clearly need a single decision maker. Our inconsistency is a serious problem. As a person who is elected by the whole county, the Sheriff is in a position to be held accountable for his decisions by the voters. He would also be reachable by phone. (If for some reason the Sheriff was out of town, the decision-making authority should devolve to the highest-ranking officer available.) Anyone else would work for the Board, and be subject to the biases of uninformed Supervisors. This person would always be faced with 3-2 split opinions.

I have not spoken to the Sheriff about this proposal. But I think it is a natural outgrowth of his role as the Chief Public Safety Officer in the County. This one decision will not need to be made very often, and should not take away from his other duties.

There should be few costs to this policy. We already allow employees to go home; they simply need to use comp time, vacation, or take time without pay. I think we could maintain this system and expand it to include all nonemergency personnel. One catch - under the current system a person who cannot get to work (or leaves work) due to weather can take vacation; the problem is that any leave must be approved by their supervisor. I envision a system where vacation would be automatically approved if the buildings were shut down. Perhaps the unions representing our employees have ideas. Other counties have emergency plans – it can be done.

Emergency cancellations should be and are extremely rare, but pretending that nothing will ever happen is simply burying our heads in the sand. Basically anything we can imagine COULD happen. The potential emergencies are not even all weather-related; gas leaks, for example. We might as well have a plan.

People will second-guess every decision that is made. But there have only been an average of 1-3 days per year where conditions might call for closing county offices. The cost of sending folks home if they use time off is almost nothing. The cost is certainly much less than the cost of a life. Our employees deserve to be safe.

I am hopeful that Johnson County will listen to its employees, and adopt a common sense policy on disasters.

Government is GOOD! How do I know? Because the US Postal Service delivers our mail cheaply, quickly, and accurately. It is something most of us take for granted, but life without postal service would be a challenge.

Mail - brought to you by your GOVERNMENT!

DID YOU KNOW? Approximate amount generated by photographs with Santa in shopping malls in the USA:

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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As always, feel free to contact me at 354-7199 or I look forward to serving you!



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