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Election Draws Attention To A 'Dysfunctional' Thurston County Board

Courtesy of the Thurston Conservation District
A map of the Thurston Conservation District's boundaries

An election at a Thurston County land stewardship board is getting more attention than usual.

Saturday's election for an open seat on the Thurston Conservation District's board comes as the body faces a state investigation into allegations of dysfunction. 

The State Conservation Commission declared the district a "dysfunctional entity" in a November letter, citing "disrespectful and inappropriate behavior" by board members at public meetings and their conduct toward staff.

State officials also cited "lengthy, frequent, and inefficient" board meetings marked by squabbling over meeting minutes, among other issues.

The State Conservation Commission is investigating two members of the district's board of supervisors — neither of whom are up for re-election — for possible removal related to the body's problems. 

"It is unusual that we see the kind of animosity that we're seeing on the Thurston board," said Ron Shultz, director of policy for the State Conservation Commission. "It's really unfortunate."

"They had been a good functioning board," he added. "But things for whatever reason have fallen apart." 

Shultz said State Conservation Commission staff hope to complete the investigation by the end of April.

At that time, they'll make a recommendation to the commission's executive director as to whether to move forward with a hearing on the board members' removal. 

"We have to be very careful and very thoughtful when we're talking about potentially removing someone who was duly elected at the local level," Shultz said. 

The Thurston Conservation District, along with similar districts across the country, was created in response to the Dust Bowl.

The district doesn't have regulatory powers, but it runs various programs that help farmers and other landowners manage their properties in an environmentally sustainable way. 

Three members of the board are elected while two others are appointed by the State Conservation Commission.

Samantha Fleischner, one of the elected supervisors, said she decided against running for a second three-year term after clashing with other board members.

"I've been kind of berated as a person and my opinion is disregarded frequently," she said. "And so, I just, I can't — emotionally, I can't do it anymore." 

She also cited "the amount of time we're spending on approving minutes and having conversations about how poorly run the district is." 

Fleischner said the board's functioning has devolved over the past two years or so, with members split over whether to trust the district's professional staff. 

"Other board members want to micromanage the positions and find out what they're doing on a daily basis," she said. 

Two candidates are running for Fleischner's seat. Residents of the district can vote from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at the district's offices in Tumwater. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.