Barbara Perry guest writes this article. She came across the district election process, was appalled, and has researched in an effort to fully understand.
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Are all 47 Washington Conservation District elections full of fraud?
These conservation districts, mostly bound by county lines, “help citizens protect renewable resources through the use of voluntary, incentive-based practices.” They are funded by federal, state, and grant money. In Washington, each district elects three citizens who act in supervisory positions and all registered county voters may vote for their election. The one rule is that board members must be landowners who manage a farm.
In Whatcom County there have been problems with these elections, starting with the fact that most voters don’t know about them. Conservation district election information is usually buried on a back page of one local newspaper. Also, when a voter requests a ballot, the request is never recorded and there has been a history of ballots not being sent even though prospective voters are assured they will be. Here are the facts.
On July 16, the Washington Conservation Commission finally certified the results of the March 10 election for the Whatcom Conservation District board. It took over four months to open and count 228 contested ballots. Due to the volume of citizen complaints to the commission, the state executive director, Mark Clark, oversaw our election results. He further assigned the commission’s lawyer, Bill Eller, to verify those results.
According to Mr. Eller, ballots were certified when voter intent was clear. Beyond that, it did not seem to matter that voter requests for ballots were not recorded, because according to him, it was not legally necessary. He dismissed the contention that some voters may not have received ballots, claiming it would only have been a tiny amount. Office workers complained they were tired of dealing with the election and did not have time for their usual work.
The final tally for 2015, as certified by the commission, was that Larry Helm, the Tea Party candidate, won with 2142 votes—46 more than Joy Monjure, the progressive, with 2,096. It was an unusually large number of ballots for any WCD election.
In the past, most WCD elections for the three-year terms were tiny, elected by a small group of voters. That is, until 2012.
2009 2010 2011 2012
37 votes 18 11 1,342 votes
What happened? In 2012, Whatcom Watch let their 6,000 readers [number corrected from earlier] know about the election between Tea Party candidate, Larry Helm, against Jayne Uerling, a progressive. Helm won by 84 votes: 713 to Uerling’s 629. No one questioned the close election or the 81 uncounted ballots.
Then in 2015, at least 5 alternative news outlets notified Whatcom voters of the election. It was no wonder so many voters requested ballots.
2013 2014 2015
no election 6 votes 4238
But problems with these elections aren’t unique to Whatcom County. Bill McCullum, of Whatcom Watch, waited three months after requesting information from the King County Conservation District. Their voting numbers are equally erratic. According to the League of Women Voters, the 2,295 votes in 2011 were on-line votes fraught with problems.
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
2,295 212 148 0 144
In an attempt to clean up this mess, the Washington State Conservation District group is requesting ideas to improve the voting system. Please consider weighing in and fill out the 2015 Election and Appointments Feedback Form here . Note the page says this suggestion form is for staff and supervisors only. Well, it is a public web page and we citizens - we taxpayers who fund the conservation districts - have a right to give our suggestions.
Hopefully citizens will send their recommendations and they will be heard. The Conservation District board positions, while not paid, wield power over the entire county’s land and water. The process should be cleaned up and all residents should be represented.
Here are some suggestions:
1. For improved turnout and representation, follow Oregon’s lead and hold these elections with the general elections.
2. Advertise Conservation District elections, including candidate descriptions, on all significant news outlets as well as the district’s web site.
3. Have the state Department of Agriculture appoint one representative to each of the 47 district boards, allowing the state to oversee activities.
4. Change the Conservation District name to Soil and Water Conservation Commission, so people can tell by the name what the commission does. Conservation District is vague, at best.
5. Farm workers are more likely to experience direct exposure to pesticides in the water and therefore should be represented on the boards.
6. Have all meeting notes available on-line.
September 4 is the deadline for submitting comments about possible changes. Feel free to use any ideas from this article. Also, consider sending a message to the governor - just to make sure your comments get tallied.