Wednesday, March 7, 2018
DIRTY DEEDS: A minor election is once again shaping into a major controversy.
The elections for the Whatcom Conservation District board of supervisors historically have been handled in-house. It’s a small office with limited influence, but nagging cycles of controversy and ballot irregularities suggest future district elections should be managed more comprehensively through the county elections office.
This year’s taint began early, when supporters for the reelection of board chair Larry Helm improperly obtained through a public disclosure request the mailing lists of past WCD elections that were then used to distribute campaign information in support of Helm. This was in violation of the district’s policies and procedures for such requests.
“Records of voters who are issued a ballot are disclosable and subject to public records requests,” noted Bill Eller, commission elections officer for the Washington State Conservation Commission. “However, the disclosable information on a voter’s registration does not include email addresses. But, the subject of this request was not a voter’s registration, but rather a voter’s request to be sent a ballot.”
Whatcom Conservation District Executive Director George Boggs issued an apology for the violation of district policy, which stresses that mailing and calling lists from those seeking a ballot will not be provided to third parties.
“A third party may have sent you a campaign message regarding our Board of Supervisors election using the information you provided when requesting a mail-in ballot,” Boggs wrote. “In setting up the mail-in ballot request system, the intention was to create a pathway that would provide more access to voting in the district elections within our limited financial resources. I did not anticipate that the information gathered would be publicly requested and used in this way, violating our promise of confidentiality to you. If I did, it would have been made clear to you before you shared your email address and phone number.
“Email addresses were requested as a way to acknowledge that your ballot request was received,” Boggs wrote. “It was also used to notify you that the ballots had been mailed and the timeframe in which to return them. Again, the intention was to provide the best customer service and ensure access to the election process for all.”
Additional irregularities have arisen in Helm’s campaign for reelection.
The Whatcom Conservation District has a posted policy that discourages one person making a ballot request on behalf of another person, except for a family member or a domestic partner. This policy is clearly stated for anyone attempting to request a ballot. The policy is not an arcane detail that anyone requesting a ballot could miss.
Yet in January, Helm sent out a message across broad social media: “Send me your Name, Address, Email, and Phone Number, and I will request a ballot to be mailed to you.” His effort was supported by Whatcom Republicans, who declared, “We need to get the ballots to the voters, one way or another.”
This is clearly electioneering; and as ballot stuffing is discouraged by WCD policy it placed those candidates who observed the rules at a disadvantage in this election.
Candidates who played by the rules were harmed by the actions of Helm and his supporters.
Helm, an aggressive committee officer for the Republican Party, has installed himself on nearly every possible board and commission dealing with county agriculture. In doing so, he has certainly imposed his iron views on that subject, but he has done so at the cost of reducing the variety and diversity of other views on agriculture. By design, he has sucked all the oxygen out of the topic.
“The farmer’s profit is regularly negatively impacted by fees and environmental regulations, which generally result in higher food prices,” Helm asserts in his campaign literature. “If a farm is not polluting-producing clean water downstream, then government should minimize their impact to that farm operation. Without a healthy profit margin our farms will slowly disappear.”
That’s certainly a commonly expressed concern, but it is an unfortunate one for a conservation district. Their purpose is to provide resources to farmers to help navigate state and federal regulatory laws, not to serve as a pulpit to snarl and sneer about those laws.
Conservation districts were originally formed during a rough patch for farmers in the middle part of the last century, to help them remain solvent and operating at a time when many farms were failing. In subsequent years, the mission of conservation districts expanded to serve to help landowners respond to new land policies and environmental regulations.
Conservation districts work with landowners on a voluntary basis, providing support and information to enhance land conservation on private lands. The partnership is essential, as private land management is understood to be key to conserving Washington’s renewable natural resources.
Conservation districts are a unique form of non-regulatory government, matching local needs with technical and financial resources to help landowners solve issues. They are inherently conservative in approach, and focused on rural life.
Several election cycles back local growers began to notice that issues of sustainability, resource conservation and organic farming were under-represented by the WCD board and began to field progressive candidates. County reactionaries responded aggressively, instantly polarizing this once quiet, modest election in an agency that exists solely to connect farmers with resources.
An election that once garnered a few hundred ballots that could easily be handled in-house has become an existential death match, poisoned with the underhanded tactics of a familiar slate of bad actors perpetually at the center of local election mischief. The district’s days of innocence are over.