OLYMPIA — A bill to change how conservation district supervisors are elected won wide support Wednesday at a House hearing, except from the Washington Farm Bureau.

House Bill 1652 would let districts hold elections in November, putting supervisor candidates on ballots with contenders for higher-profile offices, such as city councils.

Districts could stay with self-organized, lower-key and cheaper elections, but they may face pressure to move to November, Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said.

Conservation districts would have to help pay for the larger general elections. Davis told the State Government Committee that the money would be better spent helping landowners.

"We're concerned that diverting any funding away from much needed conservation projects to pay for elections is a bad outcome," he said.

Conservation districts currently have loose rules for supervisor elections. The elections must be held sometime in January, February or March.

All registered voters are eligible, but they must seek out polling places or request ballots, rather than automatically receiving them in the mail.

The King Conservation District has led a push to move elections to November, arguing supervisors control public spending and should be chosen by more people.

Kirsten Haugen introduced herself to the House committee as an elected King Conservation District supervisor and added, "I use the term 'elected' loosely."

She said 0.7% of eligible voters participated in her election. "They are essentially secret elections, disenfranchising voters," she said.

The State Conservation Commission polled conservation districts and found opposition to being forced to move elections to November. Besides the cost, general ballot elections would politicize districts, some warned.

HB 1652 offers a compromise. For districts that don't move to November, the state commission would pick one month for elections statewide. 

Conservation Commission policy director Ron Shultz said the commission would promote the month, comparing it to Orca Day, an effort to rally interest in conservation projects.

HB 1652 would also increase the terms of elected supervisors to four years from three years. Elections would be limited to odd-numbered years.

In districts that switch to November, candidates would file in May. All candidates would go on the November ballot. There would be no primary.

The bill would continue to exempt conservation district supervisor candidates from disclosing sources of campaign contributions, even if elections are moved to November.

Managers for the Skagit and Ferry conservation districts, two more rural counties, testified in support of the bill.

Conservation districts have three elected supervisors and two appointed by the state commission.

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