Two Western Washington farmers will have a chance to defend themselves Dec. 7 against accusations they've undermined the Thurston Conservation District's finances and morale and should be removed from the board of supervisors.
Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer will face the Washington State Conservation Commission at a daylong hearing in Lacey. Afterward, the commission will go into a closed session to decide whether to exercise its power to oust supervisors.
In interviews Thursday, Johnson and Mankamyer complained that their lawyer won't be able to cross-examine their accusers. Johnson and Mankamyer have filed a federal lawsuit alleging state conservation commissioners are violating their constitutional rights.
"It's a total kangaroo court. That's what they haven't figured out yet," said Mankamyer, who was non-committal about whether he would participate.
"I want to go. I plan on going," Johnson said. "I want to set much of the record straight. I don't know know how much I'll be able to do with no due process."
The state conservation commission set the hearing after an investigation concluded there were grounds to remove Johnson and Mankamyer. The probe was initiated by complaints from a former district supervisor. The lead investigator was Kirk Robinson, a former deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture.
Johnson and Mankamyer allegedly sowed dissension, mistreated district employees and violated district policies. They attribute the complaints to their close questioning of district staff. Johnson allegedly missed a meeting that led to the district losing nearly $600,000 in property taxes. Johnson blames the staff for missing the deadline to apply for the assessments.
Robinson completed the investigation in July. The rancor continues. A rift on the five-member board erupted near the end of a five-hour meeting Oct. 30 with a profane exchange between Johnson and another supervisor, Paul Pickett.
Johnson opposed accepting a $300,000 grant from the state Department of Health to hold workshops and farm tours to support a program that links prospective farmers with fallow farmland. Johnson questioned the program's effectiveness. Pickett accused him of continuing a pattern of nitpicking. The angry barbs ended with Johnson, the board's chairman, declaring the meeting adjourned and leaving. The meeting went on for 10 minutes with Vice Chairwoman Linda Powell presiding.
About two weeks later, Mankamyer sent an email to the state commission asking that Pickett and another supervisor, Doug Rushton, be removed from the board. The commission staff will look into the complaint, the state commission's policy director, Ron Shultz, said Friday.
Pickett said Friday that he was tired, hungry and strongly supported accepting the grant when he spoke sharply to Johnson. He said he sent an email to Johnson apologizing for his language.
"I just lost my temper and said bad words," he said. "Right now, the functioning level (of the district) is pretty low, and it's not really a sustainable situation."
Rushton, a board ally of Pickett's, has been a district supervisor since 1994. "My hope for the district is we'll get our governance straight, how we run our board meetings, how we interact with the staff and how we interact with the public," he said Friday.
Johnson and Mankamyer's lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington is in its early stages. The suit names the commissioners who voted to hold the hearing and commissioner staff members, including Shultz.
"How can they be unbiased if we're personally suing them?" Johnson asked.
Shultz said the lawsuit doesn't figure into whether to remove Johnson or Mankamyer or both.
"I know very little about what's happening with the lawsuit. It has very little if any influence on preparing for the hearing," he said. "We're very much focused on the facts."
The hearing will start at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 7, in the Department of Ecology auditorium in Lacey. The hearing is open to the public, though no public comment will be taken. Johnson, Mankamyer and the commission staff are scheduled to make presentations, followed by questions from commissioners. If everyone uses their allotted time, the hearing will be six hours, excluding breaks.
The Attorney General's Office is providing legal counsel to the state commission. To pay for that, the state commission has put in a budget request for $300,000 from the state's general fund.
In another matter, the state conservation commission on Thursday restored $45,000 of the $90,000 the commission withheld from the Thurston Conservation District for not meeting accountability and performance standards. Shultz said the commission released half of the money because the district has made progress in meeting the standards.
The standards are related to complying with public meeting and records laws, and following other state laws related to contracts and record-keeping. The conservation commission awards funds to 45 conservation districts, and Thurston was the only one to have money withheld.