SIOUX CITY | Larry Clausen was in his early 40s in November 1982 when he was elected to the Woodbury County Board. It was the start of a political career that led to Clausen helping shepherd through a new county jail and the addition of the Trosper-Hoyt Building, along with dozens and dozens of other projects big and small.
It's a political career that's still going today.
Clausen, 73, of Sioux City, is tied with a Buchanan County official for having the most tenure of any county board member in Iowa -- at 30 years, four months. Fellow Woodbury County Board member George Boykin, 73, of Sioux City, has the third-longest tenure in the state, at 28 years, four months.
Together, the Clausen and Boykin are on their way to serving a combined 16 terms on the five-member panel, which sets the property tax rate, prepares annual budgets and oversees county departments.
The tenure issue is well known to board critics and those who have squared off against Boykin and Clausen in political campaigns. They say the longevity puts the county at a disadvantage.
James Van Bruggen, who heads the Sioux City watchdog group Taxpayer Research Council, attends most Tuesday board meetings and said the panel can have tunnel vision in terms of new ideas and strategies.
"Sometimes you are used to viewing an issue a certain way and are not as open to new ideas or another way of doing things," he said.
Boykin and Clausen defend their positions and say their history is invaluable to making smart decisions. Boykin said voters decide whether their track record has merit.
"The public is the best term-limiter for elected officials," he said. "If they don't want me, they certainly aren't going to elect me back into office."
'KIND OF AN ANOMALY'
Iowa is among 40 states that have no rules on how long a county board member can serve. Iowa State Association of Counties Executive Director Bill Peterson said he's never heard of any effort to create term limits, mainly because there's so much turnover usually. About one-third to one-fourth of members change every two years across the state, making Clausen's achievement remarkable, he said. Iowa has 99 county boards.
"Having somebody last 30 years as a supervisor is kind of an anomaly," Peterson said. "There are some individuals who do amazingly last a long time in this business. But there are a lot of them that get one, two, maybe three terms, but eventually there will be some decision made by a board of supervisors made in a county that will aggravate enough voters in a county to un-elect them."
Woodbury County positions are elected at-large, which means members don't represent a certain area. Members are paid $31,554 annually. Elections are every four years.
Clausen also serves as chairman, a position that fellow members appoint each session. He has held the chairman job several times before.
None of the other Woodbury board members are even close to matching the tenures of Clausen or Boykin, who are both Democrats. The next closest, Mark Monson, a Democrat from Sergeant Bluff, was elected in 2004.
Clausen said he's proud of the title. Neither he nor Boykin knew about the standing until being told by a reporter.
"To realize that there is nobody in the state who has served longer," Clausen said, "that is an honor, (which) I didn't know."
AN ATTITUDE OF ENTITLEMENT
Woodbury County Board member Jackie Smith, a Democrat from Sioux City, said age is simply not a factor in a person's ability. She said she recently met Pocahontas County Board member Vincent Triggs, 89, at an Iowa State Association of Counties convention.
She said Clausen is a well of knowledge.
"He just seems to be able to think a little more broadly about a problem, things that I haven't considered. You get better with that every year that you are on there," Smith said.
But Van Bruggen said there's also a risk that longtime members will become resistant to change. He said Boykin and Clausen sometimes forget that people at board meetings don't have their history and fail to explain background on key issues.
"You get used to the same-old grind," he said.
Linda Holub, of Sioux City, who ran as a Republican for the County Board in November against Smith, said Clausen and Boykin have the mentality that they "rule the roost." She said she's disappointed that they fight ideas on improving county government from the Taxpayer Research Council.
"When you've been on there too long, you get the attitude of entitlement, that you have more knowledge than someone else, because you've been there that long," Holub said. "But in fact, what happens is your frame of reference is narrowed, because you've been in one spot so long that new ideas then don't enter in. You get stuck in your train of thought."
A PERFECT COMBINATION
Peterson, the county association official, said the key to any board is to have a "blend of experienced and non-experienced individuals to make sure the process refreshes itself."
He said there is value in tenure, since older board members will recall "experiments that were tried and failed or why they do things the way they do them."
Smith said longevity is a downside only if a county board member is resistant to new ideas, which isn't happening.
"The combination of fresh new ideas and experience is the perfect scenario, as long as you are open-minded," Smith said.
"A lot of things reoccur through the years and it is nice to have the experience of having dealt with it before," he said. "New blood, I'm not opposed to that at all. But experience, there is a lot to be said for it."