A federal judge dismissed a claim Friday by two farmers who allege the Washington State Conservation Commission violated their constitutional rights, likely sending to state court the dispute over their ouster as Thurston Conservation District supervisors.
Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer lost their unpaid positions, but failed to show they were deprived of their liberty or property, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan said in a written decision.
Their attorney, Shawn Newman, said Monday that they will pursue in Thurston County Superior Court claims that the conservation commission illegally improvised the hearing that led to their removal.
“It’s not over,” he said. “You don’t create rules on the fly.”
The conservation commission voted Johnson and Mankamyer off the conservation district board Feb. 20 after a one-day hearing on allegations they hampered operations and harassed staff. Johnson and Mankamyer said their attempts to supervise the staff stirred up the allegations.
Before the hearing, Johnson and Mankamyer sued individual commissioners and commission executives, claiming the commission was more interested in a speedy resolution than a thorough hearing.
Bryan’s decision ruled out Johnson and Mankamyer winning based on federal constitutional rights, but leaves open the possibility of winning based on the due process requirements in the state Administrative Procedure Act.
The commission maintains the hearing was fair and that the allegations were based on an extensive investigation.
“We are ready to look to the future with the Thurston Conservation District and help it build support to help residents, agriculture and natural resources,” state conservation commission spokeswoman Laura Johnson said Monday.
Bryan said Eric Johnson and Mankamyer may have had a point about flawed commission procedures, but the judge said he didn’t need to rule on that because they weren’t deprived of a constitutionally protected liberty or property right.
Also, conservation commissioners could have reasonably believed they were following a state law that gives them authority to remove conservation district board members for neglect of duty or malfeasance, Bryan said.
Eric Johnson was appointed supervisor, but Mankamyer was elected. Newman argues that the law cited by the state conservation to remove Johnson and Mankamyer shouldn’t apply to elected officials.
“When citizens elect somebody, a board of appointed bureaucrats shouldn’t be able to override the selection citizens made,” Newman said.
The conservation commission originally proposed a hearing without witnesses other than the commission’s investigator and the accused. Johnson and Mankamyer argued the hearing should have sworn testimony and cross-examination. The hearing eventually did have a limited number of witnesses.
The state commission plans to appoint someone to replace Johnson on May 16, the commission’s spokeswoman said.
The Thurston Conservation District board will pick someone to complete Mankamyer’s elected term.
Newman said the lawsuit could seek to have Eric Johnson and Mankamyer reinstated to the board.