Clallam Conservation District election prompts change in eligibility rules

PORT ANGELES — Vague candidate eligibility rules that surfaced during Clallam Conservation District’s sharply disputed election last year between Mike Wylie Jr. of Joyce and Don Hatler of Sequim have led to broad changes statewide beginning this year, according to the state Conservation Commission.

The Clallam County Feb. 18 election “was the bellringer for statewide changes,” Tom Salzer, the commission’s spokesman and technical services manager, said this week.

“It’s pretty safe to say Clallam was the driving force.”

Elections in the state’s 47 conservation districts are slated for January through March, including elections for one seat on the Clallam Conservation District board and one on the Jefferson County Conservation District board.

The new rules apply to the already-existing eligibility requirement that two of three elected supervisors and one of two appointed supervisors must be landowners or farmers. The remaining elected supervisor and appointed supervisor need only be registered voters.

Write-in rules change

Under changes adopted Nov. 24 by the state Conservation Commission, any write-in candidates for the three-year-term positions must meet eligibility requirements four weeks before an election is held.

Under the old rule, candidates who filed to be on the ballot had to do so two weeks before the election.

The eligibility deadline rule did not apply to write-ins, and, in fact, “there really wasn’t one” for write-in candidates, Salzer said.

Wylie, a 19-year-old Peninsula College student when he ran, defeated Hatler, the 72-year-old incumbent district supervisor, 107-60, without announcing his candidacy and on the basis of a last-minute write-in campaign quietly spearheaded in part by county Republican Party leaders, in particular, county Chairman Dick Pilling.

Pilling, owner-broker of Carroll Realty in Port Angeles, urged Wiley to run and recommended that Central Committee members get out the vote in the days before the election.

Wylie filed as a write-in candidate three days before balloting.

“Unannounced candidates often create inequity in elections for other candidates and for voters,” according to the 2010 election manual written by Salzer.

“No undeclared write-in candidates may be elected in 2010.”

Definition of farm

Also under the new rules, candidates who say they are eligible as farmers must meet the legal definition of farm or agricultural land contained in RCW 89.08.020.

Wylie had said he was a farmer by logging his parents’ land and by raising chickens and having a garden on their property.

After Wylie was elected, his parents sold him a 1 percent interest in their property, equal to $3,338 of the $335,795 parcel.

Responding to public outcry, the conservation commission held an unusual and packed public hearing in Port Angeles in April.

The commission then overturned Wylie’s victory on May 21, 2009, saying that candidates must meet the land-ownership requirement when the balloting occurs.

Having clear rules is a good idea, Pilling said Tuesday.

“Obviously, their rules were undefined before, so that they could use those rules to eliminate people they didn’t like,” he said.

“Now, maybe that will be impossible.”

When asked Monday if he might run again for conservation district, Wylie said “perhaps” but that he did not have time to be interviewed.

Clallam Conservation District Manager Joe Holtrop said the new four-week eligibility rule is intended to limit candidates who want to quietly rally support for their candidacies in order to win election without much public notice — or public participation.

“That was one of the goals of the commission, to eliminate that issue,” he said.

The new guidelines were drawn up with input from conservation districts across the state and the state Association of Conservation Districts.

“One of our goals is to get as much voter participation as possible,” Holtrop said.

“It would make sense, if our goal it to get as much voter turnout as we can, we ought to be letting people know what’s happening, like who’s running.”

In other changes approved by the commission, minimum voting hours were expanded from two hours to four hours, and polls must be open at times convenient to voters.

But the eligibility requirements were the most significant change, Jefferson Conservation District Manager Al Latham said Tuesday.

“They’ve been through a couple of permutations, and they really made it more precise.”

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Staff writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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