Irrigation district races shamefully undervoted

December 9, 2012 

The November ballots are cast, but many Washington residents have one more election day looming. Property owners decide Tuesday who will serve as the elected directors for irrigation districts. Irrigation district elections typically attract little interest, receive virtually no publicity and rarely feature any challenges to the incumbents. But this year, there are contested positions in the Columbia Irrigation District and the Kennewick Irrigation District, both serving customers in the Tri-Cities, primarily in and around Kennewick. The CID, which serves about 5,000 properties, has two seats on the ballot, but only one that is contested. Three seats are up for election in the KID, which delivers water to 22,885 properties, and only two of them are contested. State law for irrigation districts is unique in requiring elections on the second Tuesday of December, and allowing two votes on parcels of 5 acres or less in districts smaller than 200,000 acres and apportioning more votes for bigger properties. That gives large landowners the largest blocs of votes, while ensuring that even the smallest property will have two votes. But hardly anyone takes advantage of their rights. Last year’s elections saw winners in the Columbia Irrigation District receiving no more than a few dozen votes each. Challengers fell away with single-digit tallies. The KID returns had higher numbers, but the turnout was just as dismal, statistically, at a mere 0.2 percent. KID’s 22,885 irrigable properties produced only 53 voters, some of whom owned more than one property and were allowed multiple votes. Of the 1,366 votes cast, 60 percent came from the three largest landowners. Frank and Janet Tiegs of Pasco had 394 votes with their parcels totaling just under 1,000 acres in the KID; Kevin Adamson of Pasco cast 234 votes for his 580 acres in the KID; while the Kennewick School District’s 466 acres got its 188 votes. KID past and present board members added 200 more votes, the largest blocs coming from former board members/farmers William Kinsel at 72 votes and John Pringle with 102 votes. Voting shows the KID board and large landowners dominated the election, controlling 74 percent of the ballots cast, easily outgunning the other 22,000 potential voters on KID’s irrigable land, who mostly stayed home. The KID also includes about 35,000 dryland parcels, whose owners are allotted votes even though they are not assessed for water. Despite all the hullabaloo in recent years from KID customers about past bad management, water rates that favor farmers over residential customers, and elected directors whose self-serving interests triggered a $1 million lawsuit and led to the filing of at least two more in 2012, a paltry number of voters showed up at KID offices on election day. The 53 customer/property owners who did vote included 35 people with small parcels — who were easily outweighed by the larger ag land interests. Century-old irrigation law that favors farmers was created when virtually all of the Mid-Columbia was rural. Much has changed in the past 100 years, and small lot owners now dominate the district’s irrigable lands by 2-to-1 voting power and 55-to-1 parcel count. It is time for all of KID customers/voters to demand that the elected board balances the irrigation interests of all users. The board and district officials promised to do that two years ago by hiring a consultant to conduct a water-rates study. The goal was to make the rates fair and equitable for all of KID’s customers. More than $83,600 was spent on that study. The only change in rates that occurred was higher assessments for owners of condominiums and townhouses. There were no adjustments made for all other KID ratepayers. The benefit of the study was a net zero for all other KID ratepayers, and the board adopted no changes in the structure to make the assessments fair and equitable for all. As KID ratepayers consider whether to vote Tuesday at KID offices, they should take note that last December's abysmal turnout of 1,366 votes represented just 3,282 acres out of a total 20,201 irrigable acres, not even considering the remaining 35,000 dry acres whose owners also have the right to vote. A few voters are deciding who will be on the board of directors and they typically favor incumbents. With two notable exceptions, every recent member of the KID board has been a farmer or worked in agriculture. And each of those two exceptions was appointed by the Benton County commissioners to fill a vacancy, not elected. One of them was voted out of office by the few landowners who bother to vote, and the other is on this upcoming ballot. Anyone who wants to vote in the KID election must do so in person between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday at KID offices or by absentee ballot, which much be requested in writing or at KID offices. An absentee ballot cannot be obtained for a spouse, who must make his or her own request. A final word: KID does not allow individuals who own property jointly to cast each other’s votes. A spouse or joint property owner may not vote for another without a written proxy, which also must be obtained in person from KID. KID has not in the past sent voting reminders to property owners. As a recently retired reporter at the Tri-City Herald, I spent much of those 12 years covering KID and the controversies involving board members, employees and the former secretary-manager. KID’s management says a new team and new board means a new day has come. But Mid-Columbia residents who want to see even more positive changes would do well to vote Tuesday. Those who don’t will have no one else to blame if they’re unhappy with the results. It’s your water bill. w John Trumbo recently retired as a Tri-City Herald reporter.

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