Thurston Conservation District in trouble

Major changes are needed at the Thurston Conservation District. Whoever wins the Saturday election for a seat on the small agency’s board will be stepping into a bee’s nest.

Clearly a shakeup is due at the troubled conservation district, which is under investigation by the Washington State Conservation Commission for alleged board misconduct and other practices.

Paul Pickett, a state employee and former Thurston County utility district board member who has orchards and raises livestock, and Joe Hanna, a state employee who also raises beef cattle with his father, are running for the volunteer job.

Wednesday was the deadline for obtaining absentee ballots. This means most voters who want to make a difference in this election must show up at the conservation district headquarters on Saturday (March 3) to cast ballots under the unusual – and unfortunate – state rules for conservation districts.

In-person voting hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 3; district offices are at 2918 Ferguson St. SW, Suite A, Tumwater, in the Mottman Industrial Park.

This in-person voting system is a big reason few ever participate and the agency flies under public radar. The last election in 2016 drew just 271 votes.

The conservation agency is one of 45 statewide that receives state funds and – normally – local property assessment fees. It then distributes local grants to farmers and others for small voluntary projects that benefit the environment.

But there is infighting on the five-member board of supervisors, and the state commission is investigating the conduct of at least two members of the board. One staff complaint said at least two Thurston board members’ conduct “goes beyond rudeness or joking to include mockery, bullying, repeating hearsay, and offensive name-calling,” according to Olympian reporter Abby Spegman’s news story this week.

Also, the board failed last fall to convene with enough members to allow a critical vote authorizing a new property tax formula it had been working on all year.

That bungled vote is costing the district $550,000 to $600,000 of county taxpayer support this year, almost a third of its budget. The money could have gone to projects that improve land-management practices on farms and wetlands.

The state commission has power to remove local board members, but Conservation Commission executive director Mark Clark said removal of a board member in this kind of situation would be a first in his 15-year tenure.

Four candidates’ names are on the ballot but Deston Denniston and Edward Steinweg dropped out, leaving only Pickett and Hanna as the choices.

Hanna sees the lost funding for 2018 as an opportunity to restructure the agency, according to his voter-guide statement on the district’s election website. On that point he is probably right.

But Pickett appears to have experience serving on a board. Pickett served on the Thurston County Public Utility District board that oversees small water systems in the county. For that reason alone he is the better choice.

Whoever wins must be ready to take on major battles inside and outside the agency. And the Conservation Commission must investigate thoroughly.

It is possible the only way to put this district right is to start with new supervisors.