"Farmer, environmentalist compete in quiet election"
June 25, 2008 · Updated 11:37 AM
"If you're registered, you can voteIf you're a registered voter and have a mailing address on Whidbey, you can vote in the Whidbey Island Conservation District election, Thursday, March 30. The only place to vote is in the Commissioners' Hearing Room of the Courthouse Annex in Coupeville. Polls are open from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.Local conservation districts are an offshoot of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service which was formed in the 1930s to help farmers through the Dustbowl years. The five-member Whidbey Island Conservation District Board of Supervisors is made up of three elected officers, Steve Hilborn, Duke LeBaron and Marianne Edain, as well as two members appointed by the Washington State Conservation Commission, Robert Hulbert Jr. and Tim Purcell. The board members serve without pay for a period of three years. The local office also operates with three paid staff members. This month, two candidates are running hard for an office many people have never heard of. Incumbent Marianne Edain and challenger Len Engle are dueling for a position on the Whidbey Island Conservation District board of supervisors. The five-member board's job is to educate landowners about potential water pollution problems, assist them in writing farm management plans and, if needed, help them fix existing or possible problems by directing property owners to expertise and money. The candidates agree that the board plays an important role in a rural community but they disagree about its primary responsibility.Edain says the underlying mandate is to serve the land, while Engle says the environmental concerns have to be balanced with the rights of the property owner.Historically, only a couple of hundred voters decide a Conservation District election even though all Whidbey Island registered voters are eligible to cast a ballot. The low turnout is partially due to the fact that polling hours are short, there are no mail-in or absentee ballots and the only polling place is in Coupeville.Another reason may be that the office itself is not well understood by most voters. Both candidates say they'd like to see that change through education and training.Engle had been on the board for 12 years before Edain, a founding member of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, defeated him three years ago. During her first year in office, medical treatments forced Edain to miss many of the board's meetings. Engle pressed the point that attending monthly meetings is critical.For 12 years I was a faithful member who made most meetings, attended all area and state meetings plus the annual meetings, he said. I got to know a whole lot of the big players in the state conservation movement.Engle's family history on Whidbey dates back to 1852. He has most recently operated a 130-acre dairy farm on Ebey's Prairie. The farm had to be put up for sale a couple of years ago as part of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy settlement. The National Park Service has been working to obtain development rights on the land ever since.Engle said that during his previous term on the board he helped secure funding for local Conservation Districts at both the state and county level and is active in schools and in community events such as the Island County Fair and the Penn Cove Water Festival.Edain, however, questioned Engle's position on the board since he was also a direct beneficiary of the Conservation District's technical advice and money to correct problems on his farm. In March of 1998, the Department of Ecology levied a $12,000 fine against Engle Farms for failure to stop the runoff of manure into drainage ditches that emptied into the Sound.Edain continues to be a spokeswoman for WEAN, a pro-environmental organization that is involved in ongoing litigation with the county over development regulations. She said the Conservation District has operated too narrowly in the past, handing out dollars and services with little attention from the public.I think the public has the right to know where their money is going, she said. I don't think the Conservation District should limit its focus to a handful of farmers and a couple special events.Engle said his own experiences with pollution problems have given him a good perspective.I understand what has to be done and who has to bend, he said. Alluding to Edain's strong environmental stance he added. You get a lot more done if you get people to volunteer to do things instead of shoving it down their throats. I think the land owner should have a say in what goes on.Edain said she didn't think the board or local farmers should feel threatened by a new way of looking at things."