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Election where all can vote, few do

By Martha M. Ireland
Column for March 3, 2006 – Peninsula Daily News  

      Fewer than two dozen voters re-elected Lige Christian to the Jefferson County Conservation District Board of Supervisors on Tuesday evening.

      Only 23 registered voters—that is, people owning, leasing, or renting land in unincorporated Jefferson County outside the Port Townsend city limit—went to the district’s Port Hadlock office between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., district manager Al Latham said.

      They all backed Christian, who ran unopposed.

      The vote typifies balloting for the three elected supervisor positions on each conservation district’s unpaid five-member governing board. (The state Conservation Commission appoints the other two supervisors.)

      But in Clallam, three registered candidates are running—incumbent Steve Marble, a real estate agent and property rights advocate; challenger Don Hatler of Sequim, a retired entrepreneur; and challenger Garret DelaBarre, a Port Angeles builder.

      Three poling places—at the Port of Port Angeles office, Sequim library, and Crescent Grange in Joyce—will be open from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. Tuesday.

      Past Clallam Conservation District elections have ranged from high drama to sleepers.

      “In the Legislature, they call us the best kept secret out there,” Clallam Conservation District Manager Joe Holtrop said.

      The district works in a non-regulatory way to help landowners be good environmental stewards by providing technical and financial assistance.

      In 1997, then-incumbent Pete Schroeder narrowly outpolled Marble, a write-in candidate.

      However, district staff appeared to be running an active get-out-the-vote operation for Schroeder while manning the poles, complained numerous Marble supporters.

      The alleged improprieties forced a re-vote. The second time around, Marble won.

      That chain of events prompted legislators to enact a law requiring conservation district elections to be conducted by county auditors and abide by state elections standards.

      The next year, in well-ordered primary and general elections, incumbent Clallam Supervisor Joe Murray outpolled challengers Ryan Kent Smith and Nancy Lynn Newman.

      But the following year, the legislation was repealed and Conservation Districts reverted to running their own informal elections.

      The problem: The Legislature did not appropriate money to pay for the elections and the district budgets are almost entirely funded by state and federal grants that cannot be spent on elections.

       “The election that was run by the auditor’s office cost us $4,000, since there was only one person that filed and therefore no primary,” Latham said. “We paid it out of savings, which reduced the amount of funding we have available for projects.”

      Clallam Conservation District still owes Clallam County $32,000 for the contested 1997 race, a debt the district “has no means to pay,” Marble said.

      “Fortunately,” he joked, “the county hasn’t foreclosed on us.”

      Marble ran unopposed twice, winning two more three-year terms.

      “Some other citizens are stepping up to do community service [as Marble seeks a fourth term],” he said. “I find that commendable.”

      Hatler and DelaBarre both said their interest was piqued when no candidates filed for the Clallam supervisor position that was open last year.

      In that election, Bob Forde won with 47 write-in votes, to 31 for Ben Smith and one for Steve Johnson.

      When Forde learned there were no registered candidates, he said he would be willing to serve if people wrote in his name. Friends, many of them property rights advocates, spread the word and went to that year’s sole poling place.

      The minimal turnout and seemingly lackadaisical candidacies, “bothered me,” said Hatler, “It made it seem like a secondary interest of the community. I didn’t want that to happen again.”

      DelaBarre read a pre-election announcement that mentioned “how there was no response last time,” he said. Initially, he filed just to “fill the need,” but is now “looking forward to the opportunity to make a difference.”

      Even with multiple registered candidates, conservation district elections are casual, with outcomes frequently determined by just a handful of votes.

      “Just tell everyone to come out and vote,” Marble said.


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