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State commission removes 2 Thurston Conservation District board members from office

Thurston Conservation District

More than a year after launching an investigation into Thurston Conservation District board members, the Washington State Conservation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to remove two of the district board’s five members effective immediately for neglect of duty and malfeasance in office.

A report by staff at the state commission released last year found Eric Johnson, the board’s chairman, and Richard Mankamyer, its auditor, prevented the release of board meeting minutes to the public, in some cases for more than a year, and delayed or refused to sign district checks, resulting in late fees on bills for things such as rent, utilities and car leases.

The report also faulted Johnson for failing to attend a November 2017 hearing that resulted in the district not collecting local tax dollars in 2018.

Kirk Robinson, interim director at the state commission who conducted the investigation, said the most concerning allegations to him related to treatment of district staff, who reported what they considered to be inappropriate or intimidating comments and actions by the two.

At a hearing Wednesday in Olympia, Robinson testified that he heard repeated concerns from staff about their safety and well-being. Sarah Moorehead, the district’s interim executive director, testified about an incident in which she said Johnson was outside her house and taking pictures of her young child.

Johnson said he often drives by her house on the way to his farm, but denied taking pictures.

Conservation districts are public, non-regulatory agencies overseen by the state commission. Last year, the Thurston Conservation District had six permanent employees and a budget of about $1.2 million.

This was the first time in the state commission’s history it has removed local board members.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the board members’ lawyer focused on actions by district staff, arguing Johnson and Mankamyer were only trying to exercise oversight.

Jim Goche, a former board member who served with Johnson, described a “civil war” between the board and staff going back years, while a human resources consultant hired to investigate alleged financial discrepancies testified she found many “red flags” at the district during a two-week investigation last summer.

Last year’s report noted that staff’s conduct “created suspicion” but the Washington State Conservation Commission did not have authority to discipline or remove staff, only district board members.

In closing arguments, Chris Reitz, assistant attorney general representing the state commission at the hearing, argued board members are ultimately responsible for district operations.

“This is essentially a case of bare-knuckle control politics gone wrong,” he said.

The state commission, which had appointed Johnson to his seat, will now appoint his replacement to a three-year term. Since Mankamyer was elected to his seat, the Thurston Conservation District board will appoint someone to serve out his term that ends in May 2020.

Yet another board member’s seat is up for election, scheduled for late next month.

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.

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