Embattled Thurston Conservation District scores funding win

Thurston County commissioners this week approved the way Thurston Conservation District gets a third of its revenue for the next five years, a vote of confidence for the embattled agency.

”I definitely think the district has been able to demonstrate to the taxpaying community and to the commissioners what we’re capable of and our ability to implement projects and do great work,” Executive Director Sarah Moorehead said after the vote Tuesday.

Thurston Conservation District works with local landowners to manage land and protect natural resources through an array of programs and resources. It’s a public, non-regulatory agency.

TCD is run by a board of supervisors, and the state commission provides oversight over certain aspects like compliance and elections. But county commissioners have the authority to decide whether and for how long TCD collects money via property tax using a system of rates and charges.

The district has been trying to make a lasting shift to a system since at least 2017, the last year it collected a flat fee. Moorehead said with rates and charges, fees vary based on land-use type; she called the system “more appropriate” for conservation work.

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The agency tried to get the system in place for 2018, but not enough board members were present at a meeting to finalize the change.

Since the old fee had already lapsed, the district went without roughly a third of its $1.6 million budget for 2018, Moorehead said. More than half of TCD staff left and a lack of funding meant positions stayed vacant. Without staff, TCD lost the ability to write grants and funding to match state and federal grants went away.

Meanwhile, investigations and litigation have plagued TCD’s board of supervisors.

The state commission removed Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer from the board in February. An investigation found they prevented the release of board meeting minutes to the public, delayed or refused to sign district checks; district staff also reported what they considered to be inappropriate or intimidating comments and actions by the two, according to Olympian archives.

It was the first time in the commission’s history it removed local conservation district supervisors.

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The case was appealed to Thurston County Superior Court, where a judge ruled partly in favor of the commission and partly in favor of the supervisors. That case is ongoing, according to a state commission spokesperson.

Johnson and Mankamyer were also sued for allegedly violating the Open Public Meetings Act when they were on the board by holding an illegal executive session. Two other supervisors, Paul Pickett and Doug Rushton, were also sued for allegedly violating the same law by revealing what happened at the executive session.

Moorehead said claims against the district regarding public meetings violations have been settled and dismissed, and the district has taken steps to prevent future violations.

Last year, county commissioners approved TCD’s request for a shift to rates and charges for just 2019. Property owners in most of Thurston County were charged $5 per parcel plus 10 cents per acre.

With the rates and charges in place, Moorehead said TCD was able to double its staff, address the backlog of landowners’ questions, match funding for state grants and write new funding proposals.

“It’s a completely different world,” Moorehead said. “It’s the difference between being able to fully function and grow, and having to scale down to a size that would not nearly come close to covering the need.”

Thurston County Commissioner John Hutchings said at a board meeting earlier this month the one-year approval was meant to “keep the pressure on” the TCD.

“And they have proven themselves, in my opinion. In my opinion, it’s time to move on to provide the conservation district consistency without disruption to them, without disruption to the (county commissioners).”

Commissioner Tye Menser had advocated the board consider approving the system for 10 years, consistent with previous funding cycles, arguing that TCD’s doing good work and that supervisors who caused dysfunction are “long gone.”

Both ultimately voted in favor of TCD’s five-year request. But Commissioner Gary Edwards abstained from Tuesday’s vote, saying his concern was maintaining oversight and that he favored a two-year approval.

“About half of the conservation districts in the state of Washington do not use rates and charges, they fund their activities through other ways,” Edwards said. “My concern is that although the conservation district is doing good work now, in the past it’s not always done good work.”

Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.