LACEY, Wash. — Two Thurston County Conservation District supervisors will face a public hearing in October on whether they should be removed from office, the Washington State Conservation Commission decided Wednesday.
Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer, both farmers, are accused of hindering the district’s operations and treating staff inappropriately. Another conservation district supervisor, Linda Powell, defended the two, saying the accusations stem from their questioning how the district spends money.
“At worst Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer are overzealous whistleblowers,” Powell told the commission. “Keep them. We need real farmers on the board.”
The state commission convened the special meeting after a staff investigation found grounds to oust Johnson and Mankamyer. Conservation district supervisors are appointed or elected locally, but state law gives the state commission authority to remove supervisors for neglect of duty or malfeasance.
The commission staff investigated after receiving a letter in November from former supervisor Samantha Fleischner complaining about Johnson and Mankamyer. The allegations against Johnson and Mankamyer include administrative matters such as not approving meeting minutes, not signing timesheets and in Johnson’s case missing a meeting important to district finances. Other complaints are related to personal interactions with staff members.
Johnson and Mankamyer were not at the meeting. In a joint response submitted to the commission by their lawyer, Shawn Timothy Newman, they said they “intend to vigorously contest these allegations.”
“It is evident that (conservation district) staff did not want to lose power to a ‘strong board’ and engaged in a campaign of hostility and obstruction against Johnson and Mankamyer,” according to Newman.
Newman warned that removing the two will lead to “protracted and multiple lawsuits” and proposed the state commission defer to the outcome of a recently filed recall petition.
The commission decided to go ahead with a public hearing on removing Johnson and Mankamyer, though it also authorized its lawyer to negotiate an agreement that would make the hearing unnecessary. The commission agreed to hold the hearing in October, though it will set the time, date and place later.
The commission also decided to hold the hearing under less-formal rules than called for by the state Administrative Procedures Act, another option presented to the commission. Commission members said they wanted a less time-consuming hearing that could resolve the issue faster.
Johnson said Thursday that he would prefer a more formal hearing to present his case. “I want an administrative hearing in front of a non-partial judge,” he said. “I’m just afraid that if it isn’t an administrative hearing it won’t allow us to give an accurate side.”
Efforts to reach Mankamyer were unsuccessful.
Powell said after the meeting that she wished the commission had chosen the more thorough hearing.
“I’d like to see all the facts come out,” said Powell, who was appointed to the board in November. “There’s a lot of emotion and dreamed-up information. Where are the facts?”
The state commission didn’t allow public comments Wednesday on the substance of the allegations. Some 18 people did comment generally on whether there should be a hearing. Most criticized Johnson and Mankamyer, accusing them of strong-arm tactics and opposing environmental projects.
Some came their defense. Thurston County rancher Rick Nelson, a former conservation district supervisor, said the district’s priorities need to be changed. “It’s there to serve the farmers,” he said.
Powell, who called herself a “homesteader” trying to be self-sufficient on her property, said she was acquainted with Mankamyer and didn’t know Johnson at all when she joined the board.
“In my seven months on the board, I have seen no malfeasance or neglect of duty. In fact just the opposite,” she said. “Johnson and Mankamyer have legitimate concerns that justify their insistent questioning of the staff.”