The Washington State Conservation Commission will review how conservation district supervisors are elected in response to concerns about unaccountable special-purpose districts.
The state auditor in May identified 35 irrigation, weed control, water and sewer, fire and cemetery districts that are “unauditable” because of poor or nonexistent record-keeping. Auditors also alleged a King County drainage district commissioner has misappropriated public funds for many years.
No conservation district is being accused of wrongdoing, but lawmakers and the League of Women Voters have questioned before how districts elect supervisors.
Elections are held outside normal mail-in elections for other offices. Voters must watch for legal notices or check websites for the date, place and hours a conservation district will accept ballots. Turnouts are typically low.
“It’s an awkward way of electing people who are going to be possibly distributing millions of dollars,” said Glen Morgan, executive director of the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights.
Reflecting their agrarian roots, conservation districts must hold elections sometime during the first three months of the year, before spring planting. Three supervisors are elected and two are appointed by the State Conservation Commission.
At the direction of state lawmakers, conservation districts and the League of Women Voters in 2015 studied how to make voters more aware of elections. The recommendations included standardizing election dates and expanding polling hours. No change was made.
To renew the discussion, the state commission has invited conservation districts to a meeting Aug. 21 in Ellensburg. The time and place have yet to be set.
“We want to hear from them, what ideas they have,” Conservation Commission policy director Ron Shultz said. “Some districts like elections just fine the way they are.”
Washington has 45 conservation districts. They can’t levy taxes on their own, but 17 have gotten approval from county commissioners to collect assessments from landowners. Districts also receive state and federal grants.
In advance of the August meeting, the state commission has issued “talking points” to conservation districts. The points dwell on the higher cost of participating in regular elections. The commission staff estimated it could be a million-dollar annual expense for all 45 conservation districts to participate in regular elections.
As to why elections have been “so limited,” according to one talking point, historically supervisors have been a “specialized panel of influential members of the community who have technical expertise in agricultural and land use practices.”
Morgan said candidates for conservation district should be put on regular election ballots because they oversee public spending that’s increasingly going to create fish habitat, not just to conserve farmland.
“It’s more important than ever to have oversight,” he said.
Patricia Hickey, executive director of the Washington Association of Conservation Districts, a nonprofit organization, said crafting an election system that fits every conservation district would be complicated.
“We’re certainly paying attention to this,” she said. “We want to be relevant in the 21st century. We want to be accountable to our citizens.”