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Thurston Conservation District under investigation as election approaches

A habitat specialist with the Thurston Conservation District walks near a restored salmon habitat area on Beatty Creek in the Delphi Valley. Conservation districts are public, non-regulatory agencies that work with landowners to manage land and protect natural resources, offering help with things like habitat restoration, stormwater management, and noxious weed control.
A habitat specialist with the Thurston Conservation District walks near a restored salmon habitat area on Beatty Creek in the Delphi Valley. Conservation districts are public, non-regulatory agencies that work with landowners to manage land and protect natural resources, offering help with things like habitat restoration, stormwater management, and noxious weed control. Olympian file photo

Thurston Conservation District elections don’t typically get much attention. In 2016, just 271 people voted out of more than 181,000 eligible voters.

The district is governed by a board of supervisors with three elected members and two state commission-appointed members. But with one seat up for grabs on Saturday (see box), this year’s race is generating some buzz.

That is because whoever wins will join board members who, over the past year, have been at odds with district staff, state officials — and each other.

“I can’t be a part of the board, I can’t do it. Emotionally, it takes too much out of me,” said Samantha Fleischner, the outgoing board member. “The blatant disrespect for the staff, it’s horrible.”

A 2017 memo from staff to the board said morale had been “severely affected” by comments from board members: “This conduct is unwelcome and goes beyond rudeness or joking to include mockery, bullying, repeating hearsay, and offensive name-calling.”

In an interview with The Olympia Standard podcast posted last week, Joel Hansen, an associate board member, called out the chairman, Eric Johnson, and another member, Richard Mankamyer, for trying to consolidate power. (Associate members are appointed by the board and don’t vote.)

“These two gentlemen are determined to take over the district and basically hire all their good-old-boy buddies and then funnel all the money that goes to the district to themselves and their buddies,” Hansen said. “It would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.”

In an email to The Olympian, Johnson wrote: “I am bringing needed accountability to this agency. Joel and the bureaucratic bootlickers may not appreciate that, but that is my commitment to taxpayers. As a farmer, I’m used to dealing with manure and manure spreaders.”

A dysfunctional entity?

Conservation districts are public, non-regulatory agencies that work with landowners to manage land and protect natural resources, offering help with things like habitat restoration, stormwater management, noxious weed control and much more.

The Washington State Conservation Commission, which is the coordinating state agency for the 45 local districts, has called the Thurston Conservation District “a dysfunctional entity” and is investigating complaints against board members.

In November, it sent a letter to the board describing “passive aggressive” and “disrespectful and inappropriate” behavior, including openly complaining about district staff, refusing to listen to fellow board members, and holding lengthy, frequent and inefficient board meetings.

It also described a demonstrated unwillingness on the part of at least two board members to understand and uphold district policies and procedures.

“These are very serious (issues), and we’re taking them very seriously,” said Ron Shultz, policy director at the Washington State Conservation Commission.

State law allows the Washington State Conservation Commission to remove local board members for “neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.” Shultz said he expects staff to make a recommendation on whether to move forward with the removal process by the end of April.

Last year, Fleischner, whose three-year term ends in May, wrote to the state commission’s executive committee asking for the immediate removal of Johnson and Mankamyer, citing harassment of staff by the two men.

In his email, Johnson dismissed the state’s investigation.

“Some entrenched bureaucrats and their sycophants don’t want me rocking their boat — that cruises under the radar and is fueled by taxpayer dollars...,” he wrote. “I suppose those that do not want accountability will holler that my leadership is ‘inappropriate’ or ‘dysfunctional.’ I trust the taxpayers will see that it is just a pile of cow manure.”

‘A significant loss’

One of the more contentious issues facing the board this past year was money.

Throughout 2017, the district was preparing to change the way it collects taxes, moving from a flat rate for property owners to one that varies based on the size and type of property they own.

But at a November meeting to finalize the change, not enough board members were present and the meeting and vote could not happen without a quorum.

As a result, the district lost $550,000 to $600,000, roughly a third of its 2018 budget, said Sarah Moorehead, the district’s acting executive director. (The previous executive director left last year and the position has not been filled, Moorehead said, because of the budget cuts.) That money, Moorehead said, would have been used to help local landowners and as leverage to pull in more state and federal dollars.

“That was a significant loss of funding to the district,” she said. “It’s going to have lasting impacts for a while.”

In an email to The Olympian, Mankamyer blamed staff members. He said the November meeting was hastily scheduled after they failed to hold a required public hearing and give proper notice. On the day of the November meeting, Mankamyer said, he and Johnson had prior commitments, and the district did not have a policy on participating in meetings remotely.

Besides, Johnson said, the loss of tax revenue also could be viewed as a savings for taxpayers.

“(T)axpayers saved nearly $600,000 that would have gone to overcompensated bureaucrats sucking from the public teat,” he wrote in an email. “So, do I think saving the taxpayers $600,000 ‘is a bad thing’? Hell, no!”

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869, @AbbySpegman

How to vote

Elections for the Thurston Conservation District board aren’t like other elections. Ballots aren’t automatically mailed to all registered voters in the county.

Instead, registered voters who live in the Thurston Conservation District boundaries can vote in person or by absentee ballot:

▪  Request an absentee ballot from the Thurston County Auditor’s Office in person at 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW in Olympia or by calling 360-786-5408. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28. You also can download a ballot online by then at https://thurstoncounty.everyonecounts.com/app/9617/21921.

Ballots cannot be requested through the Thurston Conservation District.

▪  Absentee ballots must be postmarked or returned by Saturday, March 3, to the auditor’s office or to the ballot drop box outside the Thurston County Courthouse on Lakeridge Drive.

▪  Vote in person from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at the district’s annual native plant sale at the Thurston Conservation District offices, 2918 Ferguson St. SW, Suite A, Tumwater.

▪  Be sure to read all instructions carefully. Note that while four candidates appear on the ballot, two — Deston Denniston and Edward Steinweg — have dropped out of the race.

For information about election procedures, contact Nora White at nwhite@thurstoncd.com or 360-754-3588 ext. 105.

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