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Important Issues, Tiny Turnouts?

March 10, 2010

TACOMA, Wash. - They are votes almost no one notices. Of the 47 conservation districts in Washington, a total of 15 have scheduled elections this month, although it is likely few people will even realize they took place. And yet, conservation districts determine how millions of tax dollars are spent on land and water conservation projects throughout the state.

In Washington counties, the districts offer assistance to farmers and landowners, helping with natural resource issues and administering grants. By state law, they must hold their elections in the first quarter of the year – but they operate outside the regular election system, so they're not on the general election ballots and don't get much publicity.

This prompted the League of Women Voters of Washington to take a closer look at how they operate, including their election rules. Jay Bollman, a member of the Tacoma-Pierce County League, says his team's research found conservation districts aren't trying to hide anything - they simply have neither the time nor budget to get the vote out.

"If they tried to get on a general election ballot, it would cost – in Pierce County – all the way from $100,000 to even more dollars just to run it. And that would be a third of their budget, which is not what their budget is for."

Bollman's volunteer stint as an observer of the Pierce Conservation District included attending the meetings, to see what happens there.

"When we got done, we felt like it was a good program that's available to people who can use the resources, both people as well as money that they have - but nobody knows about it."

Bollman says conservation districts have Web sites and newsletters to let people in their county know what they're doing. And yet, voter turnout often amounts to only a few hundred.

One of the largest, the King County Conservation District, has a $6 million budget. Its election is coming up on Tuesday, March 16, along with six other districts (San Juan Islands, Skagit, Underwood, Wahkiakum, Whidbey Island and Whitman); Friday, March 12 (Gray's Harbor and South Yakima); Thursday, March 18 (Cowlitz, Ferry and Pacific); and Friday, March 26 (Kitsap).

The Washington State Conservation Commission has information about every district's elections and polling places and links to their Web sites at www.scc.wa.gov.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA