OLYMPIA — Two Thurston Conservation District supervisors accused of intimidating staff members and gumming up district finances were ousted from office Wednesday by the Washington State Conservation Commission after a nine-hour hearing.
State commissioners met privately for about one hour after the hearing and returned with a unanimous vote to remove Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer. No commissioner explained the decision.
Commission chairman Jim Kropf declined to comment on why the commission concluded Johnson and Mankamyer neglected their duties and acted with malfeasance.
Johnson’s and Mankamyer’s attorney, Shawn Newman, ridiculed the proceeding as a “kangaroo court.” Even before the hearing, the two had sued the state commission over the process used to oust them. The suit is pending in U.S. District Court.
“This is an affront to people who want to volunteer and do their civic duty,” Newman said.
Johnson and Mankamyer, both farmers, have repeatedly clashed with staff members over such matters as spending and the accuracy of meeting minutes. They also were accused of harassing staff members.
The state commission can remove conservation district supervisors. Johnson’s term was due to expire in May, while Mankamyer’s term would have ended in May 2020.
Before voting on removal, state commissioners unanimously agreed that Johnson and Mankamyer neglected their duties by failing to timely approve meeting minutes, and sign time sheets and checks.
In another vote, the commission found Johnson and Mankamyer acted with malfeasance by treating staff members inappropriately. Johnson was also cited for malfeasance for failing to participate in a meeting in November 2017 that contributed to the district missing out on collecting $550,000 from property owners.
Only Perry Beale, who represents the state Department of Agriculture, voted against finding Johnson and Mankamyer acted with malfeasance. “To me, I’d like to see all the proof. I couldn’t quite go there,” he said after the meeting.
In testimony, the commission’s lead investigator, Kirk Robinson, said he was struck that staff members he interviewed consistently said Johnson and Mankamyer made them uncomfortable.
“A common theme was a concern for their own personal safety,” said Robinson, who is now the state conservation commission’s interim director.
Robinson’s report noted complaints about negative comments by Johnson and Mankamyer. There were a few specific complaints.
Johnson purportedly told one staff member that another was a “witch.” During an outdoor break at a conference on a cold day, Mankamyer purportedly told two female staff members they should “cuddle” or “huddle,” the words were used interchangeably during the hearing.
In another example cited in Robinson’s report, Mankamyer purportedly told staff members he loved everyone and started to cry. “That’s somehow harassment?” asked Newman.
The district’s interim director, Sarah Moorehead, testified she suspected Johnson stopped outside her home and took photos of her child.
Johnson and Mankamyer denied such conduct. Johnson said he has to drive past Moorehead’s house to get to his dairy farm. Mankamyer called complaints against him fabrications.
Current Thurston Conservation District Supervisor Linda Powell said Johnson gets tired of excuses from staff members for failing to provide him with information. “He gets frustrated, but I have not seen what I would call misconduct, definitely not harassment,” she said.
Jim Goche, who was on the board in 2014-15, blamed conflicts on a longtime struggle over whether the staff or supervisors would run the district. He said he enjoyed working with Johnson and didn’t recognize the Johnson portrayed in Robinson’s report or Moorehead’s testimony.
“I have not witnessed anything that comes close to what I heard,” Goche said. “I can tell you there is a certain exuberance to him.”
The commission dismissed some complaints, but faulted Johnson for not calling in to the 2017 meeting. No supervisor was at the meeting, but two dialed into a conference call. When Johnson didn’t, the board didn’t have a quorum and couldn’t vote to collect property assessments.
Johnson called a friend sitting in the audience at the meeting whose phone verbally announced to everyone that Eric Johnson was calling.
Johnson testified that he was at a Washington State Dairy Federation meeting in Yakima and had two minutes between sessions. He called his friend and learned no other supervisor was there.
Robinson said the district’s operations had deteriorated with Johnson and Mankamyer on the board.
“It went from a functioning district to what I would characterize as a non-functioning district at this time,” he said.