A controversy over an obscure Portland-area election has led to a proposal to change the necessary qualifications for some Oregon soil and water conservation district directors.
Last year, a candidate was disqualified from a director position at the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District because she didn’t reside or manage 10 acres in the specific zone.
The incident prompted Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, to introduce a bill that would get rid of the 10-acre requirement for district residents in counties with more than 50,000 people.
The original language of House Bill 2958 would affect half the counties in Oregon but a proposed amendment would eliminate the 10-acre requirement throughout the state.
Under both versions, registered voters could serve as directors for specific zones without residing in them.
Conservation districts were established in the wake of the Dust Bowl era to prevent erosion and otherwise improve farming practices for soil and water.
The controversy over the East Multnomah SWCD’s election highlighted the lack of clarity about director eligibility requirements and the “possibly discriminatory” way they’re applied, Nosse said during a March 12 legislative hearing.
Nosse said he’s open to more knowledgable people considering the problem, since he’s the “first to admit” that HB 2958 and the proposed amendment may not be the best solutions or cause unintended consequences.
There’s a reason to maintain such requirements as geographical zones, which help to ensure directors have local experience with agriculture and forestry that’s valuable to SWCDs, said Barbara Boyer, chair of Oregon’s Soil and Water Conservation Commission.
Boyer said eligibility requirements for zone directors have been revised seven times and asked the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use for time to discuss the issue so it can be revisited during the next legislative session.
While the Oregon Farm Bureau is willing to have a conversation about appropriate representation on SWCDs, it’s already possible for non-landowners to become zone directors by first serving in at-large positions, said Mary Anne Cooper, the group’s vice president of public policy.
Keeping SWCDs connected to an agricultural perspective encourages conservation projects that make sense for landowners, she said. “We think the bill has missed the mark by totally removing the land owning requirement.”
In written testimony, directors from several SWCDs around Oregon urged the committee to postpone voting on the bill to better evaluate proposed changes to zone director eligibility.