Senator wants farmers, regulators to address differences
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, figures the tactics he used while serving in Kosovo and Iraq might work just as well in Washington state.
He has introduced legislation designed to improve relationships between state regulatory agencies and farmers. Senate Bill 5766 would initiate a forum for improving communications, design a process for evaluating complaints, examine the training of field staff and review policies that create tensions.
"When I visit Farm Bureaus and farmers and regulators, there seems to be misunderstanding of both sides," he told the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee. "Farmers have ... a natural distrust of government, which is kind of warranted in some cases. Regulators just want to do good things for the world."
As a U.S. Army captain, Hobbs would lead "presence patrols," meeting with local people and talking about their cultures.
"We learned about each other's needs and wants, and why they might distrust us and why we might distrust them," he said.
The legislation proposes a framework for farmers and regulators to interact with each other. Planned encounters would allow them to introduce themselves, "then later out in the fields, they at least know each other," he said. "They know this person is not there to try to get them in trouble, they're just trying to do their job, and vice versa."
As military personnel and locals started to know each others' backgrounds, he said, "There were still differences, but at least it wasn't 'I hate you and they hate me.' At least we had that going for us."
The State Conservation Commission would be given the task of initiating the forum, and policy director Ron Shultz said that is an appropriate venue.
"It's part of our statutory duties to coordinate state, federal and local authorities with the conservation districts," he said.
He said that he, too, is increasingly concerned about the increasing tensions, which often arise from pressures to get results on environment issues. Engaging with farmers is critical to his mission.
"When we do that right," he said, "we get not only better environmental performance, but we also do it in the context of maintaining agricultural production and keeping farmers in business."
Don Seeberger, with the Department of Ecology's water quality program, said he was concerned that the bill carries the perception that regulatory personnel are inadequately trained and lack customer service.
"We make sure inspectors and managers understand the relationship between regulation and enforcement," he said. "Tensions have recently escalated because of increased oversight due to concerns about contaminated groundwater and closed shellfish beds."