Thurston Conservation District
Thurston Conservation District
Two Western Washington farmers say they will defend themselves against claims that they have damaged the Thurston Conservation District’s finances and reputation and should be removed from the district’s board of supervisors.
Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer are accused in a report released Friday by State Conservation Commission staff of sowing dissension and violating district policies. The report recommends that state conservation commissioners pursue expelling them from the board.
“When we go to a public hearing, I think a lot of information will come out. I don’t think it will change the outcome. There will be a removal of supervisors, but people will know how the money is spent,” Johnson said.
The Thurston district has been embroiled in a long-running, multi-faceted dispute over its operations. The state commission started investigating supervisors in November in response to complaints by another supervisor, Samantha Fleischner, who was since left the board.
The wide-ranging probe accused Johnson and Mankamyer of neglect of duty and malfeasance, while not finding grounds for accusing other past and present supervisors. The report noted tensions between staff and supervisors, but the state commission has authority to remove only supervisors.
Johnson and Mankamyer are both accused of hindering the district from paying its bills on time and of misconduct toward staff members. In interviews with the Capital Press, they disputed the claims and attributed conflicts to challenging district staff to justify expenses.
“The more questions we ask, the more blow back we get,” Mankamyer said. “I want my day in court. I want an unbiased investigation.”
Johnson and Mankamyer have 30 days to reply in writing to the allegations. The commission will then decide whether to hold a hearing within 60 days.
The complaints include an episode in which Johnson allegedly dodged a meeting in November, causing the board to lack a quorum and miss a deadline to refile a budget with the county to continue collecting a parcel tax that brought in about $600,000 a year.
Mankamyer was “upfront” about not being able to participate in the meeting, but Johnson, “by all accounts,” could have joined the meeting by phone from Yakima, where he was attending a dairy conference, according to the report.
Johnson said he supported continuing to collect the tax, but didn’t have time for a meeting that day. The staff should have planned better to meet the deadline, he said.
Conservation Commission policy director Ron Shultz said the loss of revenue could jeopardize a plan to implement voluntary conservation measures on Thurston County farms.
“We’re very concerned about that,” he said. “They (farmers) would have to revert to traditional (Growth Management Act) applications of regulatory buffers.”
On that one point, Johnson and Mankamyer agree with the state commission. “I’m concerned about the Voluntary Stewardship Program. I think it’s part of the travesty,” Johnson said. “A Voluntary Stewardship Program is the way to go versus carrying a big stick and beating people into doing things.”
In another complaint, Johnson allegedly pressured a district inspector into approving how a pipe was installed at Johnson’s dairy to move manure. Approval made Johnson eligible to receive $38,000 from the district. The inspector was initially reluctant to OK the work because the pipe had already been covered up, according to the report.
“That never happened,” said Johnson, who said other people other than the person named in the report came to inspect the work.
Separately, Johnson has filed suit Thurston County Superior Court to obtain district records. He said he hoped to learn whether the district staff had a role in writing the letter that started the state commission’s investigation. He said he has yet to receive the information.