Public participation needed at the Thurston County Conservation District

An election whose outcome that will determine the direction of an important but usually unnoticed local agency

 

The Thurston County Conservation District (TCCD) is one of those organizations that can go along for years doing their work with little notice by anyone other than those directly affected.  But at times, something occurs to interrupt the smooth functioning of the organization and its delivery of service, and then it’s time for the broader community to sit up and take notice.  

A crucial election on March 3

That time is now for TCCD. Run by a 5-member board, the District operates under state law to protect and conserve soil, water, farm and rangeland, forests, wildlife, energy and other renewable resources in the county.  Two members of the board are appointed by the Washington State Conservation Commission and three are locally elected. On March 3, there will be an election to replace one of the local members.  The outcome of that election will determine whether the Conservation District continues or abandons its traditional work.

Conservation Districts were created by the state and run locally

The Thurston Conservation District history began in 1947, 12 years after the federal government established the Soil Conservation Service in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Over-plowing of native grasslands followed by years of drought had caused dust storms that blew huge clouds of topsoil from the Great Plains all the way to the East Coast. Over time Conservation Districts took on new responsibilities—today they develop and implement programs to protect and conserve soil, water, farmland, rangeland, forests, wildlife, energy and other renewable natural resources.   There are more than 3,000 conservation districts in the country, all local government agencies. In Washington, RCW 89.08 authorizes the mission and management of the state’s conservation districts which receive programs and funding from the legislature. 

Conservation Districts are led by local citizens, matching the mission to the needs of local landowners, realizing that with 75 percent of land in private hands, only with the voluntary and active support of landowners can TCCD accomplish its conservation goals. There are 5 volunteer Board members—two are appointed by the State Conservation Commission, and three are elected. These five are ultimately responsible for the operations of the District.

The sustainability of our resources depends on TCCD programs

The Thurston Conservation District is involved in many projects in Thurston County. Some of these are the Voluntary Stewardship Program; participation in Thurston County Non-point Partnership; the coordination of the WRIA 13 Lead Entity for Salmon Recovery; the South Sound GREEN K12 program; South Sound FarmLink; and facilitation of the Deschutes Watershed Group.  TCCD programs restore fish habitat, provide free technical assistance to landowners to manage natural resources on their property, conduct soil tests, lead agricultural workshops, educate our school kids about conservation, rent agricultural equipment, and host an annual sale of native plants. 

Signs of trouble on the District Board

According to staff members, the District has experienced an unprecedented period of turmoil over the past three years. This was exemplified last fall when the District determined to change the assessment portion of their funding from grants and assessments to one based on rates and charges that would constitute a stronger legal footing. However, at the meeting scheduled to vote for the change, two members of the board absented themselves—and as a consequence, instead of a stronger funding base, the District actually lost $600,000—about a third of its funding. Another result of the action by the two board members was that a number of conservation programs were cut or curtailed; staffing hours were reduced and one job cut, and the Executive Director resigned, stating a hostile environment had been created.

Public complaints to the State Commission

Members of the public have questioned the intentions and challenged the competency of the two Board members, asking for their resignations at Board meetings and through emails to Mark Clark, head of the Washington State Conservation Commission. They argue that two board members, Richard Mankamyer and Eric Johnson, have tried to overturn decades old policies based on good governance standards found throughout state agencies.

These two members have attempted to make policy in the absence of a Board quorum; failed to release meeting minutes for months; continuously accused staff of financial mismanagement and conflicts-of-interest, even after such claims were investigated and determined by legal counsel and an outside CPA to be false; and targeted other staff members.  Meetings that once were organized and efficient now drag on for hours.  A member of the State Conservation Commission who attended Thurston Conservation District meetings observed that he had never seen an environment like the one at this District and admonished the board “you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Will the Board politicize program benefits?

Changes favored by the two Board members in question would wrest executive control from the Director and prevent staff from doing their regular work in a timely manner, while giving Board members the ability to prioritize which residents in our county receive funding assistance and services. The State Commission has required the District to submit an Action Plan to correct its deficient practices. It is now taking a “wait and see” attitude to decide if the Board can begin to function properly.  

Correction through the electoral process

As noted above, there is an election for an open seat scheduled for March 3. The League of Women Voters hosted a candidate forum on February 13 between the two candidates for the position, Joe Hanna and Paul Pickett. It was clear from that forum and the background of the two men that Paul Pickett promises the best choice for returning TCCD to its historic mission and restoring an orderly and objective process for conducting business.

An environmental engineer vs a support enforcement officer

Paul Pickett has extensive administrative experience serving on the Thurston Public Utilities District Board and in conservation. He works as an environmental engineer for the Department of Ecology and in that capacity has worked with several Conservation Districts around the State. That experience has shown him the valuable work Conservation Districts do for the entire County, not just for one group of beneficiaries. He also has conducted studies modeling water pollution problems.  He served for 12 years as an elected Commissioner for Thurston PUD which expanded considerably over his tenure. He knows how to run and manage an organization with a $2 million budget. He was a 4-H Poultry Superintendent. He’s owned property in  Thurston County for almost 30 years, where he and his wife raised their family, and where they nurture their gardens, fruit trees, blueberries and chickens. 

His experience shows him to be a model of professionalism who will bring reason, respect and trust back to a District that is woefully dysfunctional. His election will be the first step in rebuilding the TCCD to full funding and effectiveness.

Joe Hanna, a high school friend of Eric Johnson, works for the State as a Support Enforcement Officer making sure parents pay their child support. He also owns and operates a beef cattle farm in East Olympia. He touts that his major qualification for the Board is that he has attended all the TCCD meetings for the past four years, and so “knows how the district operates and the fixes needed…”  He advocates, as do Mankamyer and Johnson, for Board control of “line by line” expenses of the budget, at least for this year, and says the District does not show enough tangibles and uses too much of their budget on staff salaries.  When asked how the Board and staff should cooperate, he states they need to “get along” but advocates for the hiring of a professional manager. He sees successful management of an organization as the number of disciplinary actions it takes against its staff. His distrust of how staff operates was evident in every response at the forum. His election would exacerbate the conflicts between staff and Board, further crippling the District’s work.

 


Please encourage friends and families to vote.

Since this election has unusually low voter turnout, your vote will make a difference. By the time of this printing, you will need to vote in person on March 3  between 10 am and 3 pm at the Conservation District Office, 2918 Ferguson Ave SW  Olympia in the Mottman Industrial Park.  You can also pick up some native plants at their annual sale which runs concurrently with the election.

If you would like to submit a comment to Mark Clark at the Washington State Conservation Commission, his email is mclark@scc.wa.gov, and his phone number is 360 407-6201.  Comments may also be sent to the Thurston Conservation District’s Acting Executive Director at smoorehead@thurstoncd.com