Intersecting opportunities for elections, DEI, and rates and charges?
Over the past couple of years, WACD members have talked at length about several issues. One topic has been about conservation district elections. One has been about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And one has been about rates and charges.
Do these topics overlap?
We tend to treat these topics separately, but I’ve been wondering if it might be productive to think of them as linked ideas that have some overlap. I tend to think visually, so for me, I see this as a Venn diagram that might look something like this:
We haven’t had this conversation yet. We’ve talked about the three major topics but we haven’t explored the idea that there might be an intersection of these sets.
Opportunity to form strong coalition
Why might we talk about this? Because if there is a viable overlap in needs, then we might have success advancing a solution that checks the box for you whether you are interested in election reform, advancing DEI, or changing rates and charges. It might present an opportunity for our community to come together collectively, exhibiting our support for a solution that addresses multiple needs. A single package that allows us to build a strong coalition of support might stand the best chance of being adopted.
Local choice is important
Before I dive into these waters, let me repeat what we’ve said many times: local choice is a critical part of conservation district success. I believe that the overwhelming majority of WACD’s members agree that they desire as much local choice as possible. WACD’s strategic plan identifies locally-led conservation as a core principle: “We believe in, and uphold, the practice of locally-led, voluntary, incentive-based conservation.” The Joint Committee on Elections recognized the importance of choice. The Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion arrived at recommendations that are grounded in choice. Rates and charges systems are based on a district first choosing to seek this source of program funding.
These thoughts are not WACD policy
I don’t want anyone to think that WACD is trying to force an individual district to go on the general election ballot, or to spend resources on DEI work, or to seek rates and charges to advance the work of the district. We continue to fight for local choice because each community is different and must be served as determined by the local conservation district.
WACD policy is determined by member districts through the resolution process and by the WACD Board of Directors as elected by member districts. The ruminations offered in this article do not represent official WACD policy. I share these thoughts in the hope of stimulating discussion about achieving success on several fronts by creating a wide, strong coalition of support.
Conservation district elections
One concern we’ve heard about conservation district elections is that they don’t engage a significant portion of the local population. We’ve heard testimony that conservation district elections aren’t “real elections,” implying that only an election operated under the auspices of RCW 29A is a real election.
General election means more votes
It is a given that if board supervisors for a conservation district were elected on the general election ballot, more votes would be tallied than we have seen in district elections. While many argue that this larger engagement isn’t meaningful, or that it distorts the character of the conservation district, the obvious and inescapable conclusion is that a district election on the general election ballot will engage more people.
Engagement is how you can harvest ideas that may help a conservation district adapt and grow. With low engagement, it is hard to hear what others think. With more engagement comes the ability to be more in step with the needs of the community.
Engagement also means more communication with community
RCW 89.08.220 calls out this need to keep the community informed (particular phrases are bolded for emphasis):
- RCW 89.08.220(7)(c): “The districts shall hold public hearings at appropriate times in connection with the preparation of programs and plans, shall give careful consideration to the views expressed and problems revealed in hearings, and shall keep the public informed concerning their programs, plans, and activities.”
- RCW 889.08.220(7)(e): “The long-range renewable natural resource program, together with the supplemental annual work plans, developed by each district under the foregoing procedures shall have official status as the authorized program of the district, and it shall be published by the districts as its “renewable resources program”. Copies shall be made available by the districts to the appropriate counties, municipalities, special purpose districts and state agencies, and shall be made available in convenient places for examination by public land occupier or private interest concerned. Summaries of the program and selected material therefrom shall be distributed as widely as feasible for public information.”
Connecting election costs with rates and charges
One of the issues with electing conservation district supervisors through a general election process is covering the cost of the election. Electing supervisors through the general election process will cost money and districts must be able to pay those costs. I see some potential overlap with the need to be able to pay for elections with the idea of raising the cap on rates and charges, a thought that has started to surface in a few conservation districts.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion
Work on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has been viewed differently by various parts of our community. At a basic level, I see two camps: those who are concerned about change and those who are excited by change.
How you paint may reflect how you approach change
Let me use an analogy to describe how differently people approach change. We have some folks who have difficulty beginning a painting until they can clearly visualize every brushstroke of the finished painting. Others are willing to begin painting and see what comes of it. This is a fundamentally different way of thinking that affects how open one is to the unknowns that come with change. If you are a person who needs to see the whole painting first, taking that step into the unknown can be downright scary. If you’re a person who likes to grab the brush and see where it takes you, change can be exciting.
Me? I usually like to grab the brush and discover what emerges. (I think I was born this way. My older sister is exactly the opposite.) However, that is much harder to do as a collective of hundreds of people who are like-minded about conservation and not like-minded about many other things!
Diversity = people who aren’t like you
I do think there is a lot more going on for some of our people. Conversations about DEI expose emotions and values that can be exceedingly complex. Over the past couple of years, I’ve undergone a lot of introspection about who I am and how I respond to people who are different. (And perhaps that’s the easiest, most direct, personal definition of diversity: those who aren’t exactly like you.)
Being inclusive means embracing differences
Neither of these approaches is wrong; they are simply different. Being inclusive means accepting that people are different and recognizing that we may find value in any ideas and perspectives. Our community can’t hear those ideas if we don’t try to reach people who don’t know what conservation districts are and what they are doing.
I find the painting analogy to be useful. It helps me recognize that people have different needs when it comes to something complex like DEI. Part of being inclusive is recognizing that these differences represent real needs, not merely personal desires. To be inclusive, we need to be able to pause and hear all points of view, not just the ideas we like.
Connecting DEI with elections
But what does DEI have to do with elections? In the words of The Carter Center: “Genuine elections are required to express the will of the people.” Elections engage voters, allowing their collective will to be heard. I believe that engagement can lead to diversity and equity, because how can diversity and equity be realized without including people from all walks of life?
For me, there is an interesting intersection between elections and DEI. Remember that WACD believes that local choice should be retained by conservation districts. These thoughts about intersecting sets are not all-or-nothing ideas. For some, this exploration of ideas may open helpful dialogues about advancing issues in ways that can create advantages and value for conservation districts, for natural resources, and for the communities served by conservation districts.
Rates and charges
I’ll go farther out on a limb with rates and charges. The intersection I see with elections is simply this: if conservation district supervisors are elected by the same voters who are electing county commissioners, why should a district still be subject to the county commission approving (or not) the district’s proposed system of rates and charges? I submit that when the conservation district board is elected the same as county commissioners are, then the district board should be able to directly impose a system of rates and charges. To keep it under the thumb of the county commissioners creates a sense of servitude and dependence that frankly should not exist if district supervisors were elected through general election law.
Please let that sink in for a moment. I am certain there are several conservation districts that would proceed with a system of rates and charges if they did not have to go begging to their county commission for an uncertain approval. Achieving self-determination for rates and charges would also help address the need for sustainable funding of conservation district programs and services.
A system of rates and charges helps a district expand service in its community. More service means more engagement and positive conservation outcomes. If the cost of electing conservation district supervisors is something a system of rates and charges can cover, then conservation districts could guarantee that they could cover general election costs. Some districts have expressed interest in raising the cap on rates and charges, or even eliminating the cap. I believe this top will emerge in the fall when conservation districts come together in area association annual meetings.
Rates and charges for election costs?
Can rates and charges cover election costs? We don’t know. I think there is room to argue that RCW 89.08.405 could be interpreted to allow a system of rates and charges to cover such costs. My assumption is that the increased engagement by voters in a general election will result in more capacity of the district to provide services and/or improvements to lands. We need a legal opinion on whether rates and charges could cover election costs.
If rates and charges cannot be applied against election costs, then the only other likely solution would be revising RCW 89.08 to give conservation districts the authority to levy taxes. If a district could levy taxes, the district would be a junior taxing district. Taxes collected for junior taxing districts are subject to proration if they exceed levy rate limitations.
Taxing property owners has been an idea that our community has generally opposed. Many folks in our community have said that electing supervisors through the general election process or being able to directly impose rates and charges would negatively impact their relationship with the district’s constituents. If a conservation district chooses to have its supervisors elected on the November ballot, that is a choice for self-determination that suggests the district should have the authority to directly impose a system of rates and charges or to levy a property tax.
I do not write for or against this idea. However, I do believe that these choices should be explored if we are to achieve more self-determination for conservation districts that may wish to take this path. The wide range in capacity among our member districts mirrors the nature of the communities they serve. One solution won’t work for everyone and that’s why having a range of choices may present the most practical way to advance conservation in Washington.
Choice must govern
Local choice is the one key factor that must be cherished and retained. If a conservation district wants its board members elected through the general election process, that should be the district’s choice. If a district wants to invest energy in engaging more people in its community, that should be the district’s choice. If a district wants to impose a system of rates and charges to support district programs and services, that should be the district’s choice.
How would this fly with the Legislature?
We haven’t talked about putting these three things into one legislative package. I think it would have a chance as long as we all agree that local choice is untouchable. We cannot lose that.
If our community put forth a package that solved how to pay for general election costs and included more people in the good work of the district, while also retaining local choice instead of mandating a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, I think we’d see very strong support, indeed. A single package that touched on the needs we’ve heard from legislators and the needs we’ve heard from districts could help to generate a broad, strong coalition of support that would be hard to deny.
These are some thoughts that are swirling in my mind. Do you think these are worthwhile topics to explore this summer? Let us know!
Always yours for conservation,
Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director