Already under scrutiny, Thurston Conservation District board faces allegation by member

Thurston Conservation District’s board members at a June meeting. From left: Paul Pickett, Eric Johnson, Linda Powell and Richard Mankamyer.
Thurston Conservation District’s board members at a June meeting. From left: Paul Pickett, Eric Johnson, Linda Powell and Richard Mankamyer. aspegman@theolympian.com

Thurston Conservation District was already dealing with complaints about its board members, a lawsuit by the board’s chairman and an investigation by the state. Add to that list an allegation of an unlawful meeting by the board’s newest member.

Conservation districts are public, non-regulatory agencies that work with landowners to manage land and protect natural resources. Thurston Conservation District has six permanent employees and a budget this year of about $1.2 million.

Paul Pickett, who was elected to the district’s board of supervisors in March, accused three other board members of violating the state’s Open Public Meeting Act this month when, he said, they held a closed-door meeting to talk about one thing and ended up talking about another.

At the board’s meeting Tuesday, Pickett read from a statement signed by him and board member Doug Rushton. It described an executive session held June 7 “to evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment or to review the performance of a public employee,” which is one of the allowed reasons to hold an executive session under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

The district’s interim executive director, Sarah Moorehead, asked if the meeting was to evaluate her that the discussion happen in a public meeting.

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According to Pickett, the board's chairman, Eric Johnson, said the executive session was to discuss the executive director position, but behind closed doors Johnson and others complained about Moorehead. Pickett described the discussion as “an extended rant” and that members talked about replacing Moorehead.

Pickett emailed the Attorney General’s Office about his concerns and was told to consult to the district’s lawyer.

“Unfortunately, the district has no counsel, who might have stopped the violation described here,” Pickett said.

Responding to the allegation, board member Richard Mankamyer read from another statement that argued the request for a public meeting "does not preclude the agency from discussing the charges in executive session."

In the end, board members agreed to seek training on the public meetings and public records acts from the Attorney General’s Office.

This is not the first time board members have run into trouble.

The Washington State Conservation Commission regularly evaluates the state's 45 districts to make sure they are following the law. This week, it reported the Thurston Conservation District may have violated the Open Public Meetings Act, the state’s Public Records Act, and state and federal labor and employment laws.

That report will be presented to the state commission at its July meeting. In the past, the commission has withheld funding from districts with boards that were not in compliance, according to Ron Shultz, the commission’s policy director.

The commission was already investigating the Thurston Conservation District after it receiving complaints about board members. Findings from the investigation have not been released.

Separately, the board’s chairman has sued to get copies of emails to and from district staff.

In January, Johnson requested the emails to determine if “staff engaged in any wrongdoing,” according to court documents. He made the request to Washington State University, which keeps records for Thurston Conservation District, but was told to make the request to the district.

Earlier this month, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled this was a violation of the Public Records Act. A hearing to discuss penalties in the case is set for July 20.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869, @AbbySpegman