GRANGER – The Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee last night managed to continue its work toward reducing nitrate concentration in groundwater despite a contentious start, a competing meeting and a procedural argument that revealed deep disagreements in how the group should be operating.
The main bone of contention at Thursday’s meeting was a planned presentation by the lawyers involved in the recent settlement between local dairies and the environmental group Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment. Several members of the committee objected to the proposed presentation and it was removed from the agenda before the meeting.
The county attempted to reschedule the presentation before the meeting, but the lawyers were not available at the earlier hour. In response, committee member Jean Mendoza booked the room next door to the groundwater meeting to hold the presentation, although the lawyer for the dairies declined to participate.
As a result, both Mendoza, who represents the Friends of Toppenish Creek, and Jim Dyjak of the Concerned Citizens of the Yakama Reservation left the groundwater meeting during introductions. Another member of the public, Doug Moore, also introduced himself, then walked out to attend the other meeting.
Several committee members objected to the walkouts, saying the action was disrespectful and counter to the goals of the advisory committee.
Despite the disruption, the meeting proceeded smoothly, with the group getting through the remaining agenda items. Among the items presented was a map that showed how data the county already collects can be combined with estimates and sampling to give the committee a better idea of the extent of the nitrate problem in the Lower Valley.
Most of the work of the committee is done in a series of meetings by the working groups, and those groups have been making steady progress, according to the moderator and facilitator, Jim Davenport.
The final agenda item was regarding how the disputed presentation by the attorneys involved in the settlement with the dairies and the environmental group was placed on the agenda in the first place. It led to a half-hour discussion that included some heated comments.
Davenport said it was his choice to include the item on the agenda because he believed the information the lawyers could present would be useful to the committee. In addition, he said he felt it was the duty of the committee to help where it can, and the lawyers are asking for help in finding a third-party that can administer the program in the settlement.
Laurie Crowe of the South Yakima Conservation District said she didn’t feel the lawyers should be presenting to the group.
Stuart Turner of Turner and Company said he believed the groundwater advisory group was selected and formed to build bridges, and that litigation is the opposite of building bridges. He also objected to not being consulted before the item of hearing from the lawyers involved in the dairy settlement was placed on the agenda.
“Either we are the drivers of this bus, or we follow the lead of the county,” he said. “We didn’t even have an opportunity for input. Am I here just for show?” Turner asked.
He asked what his role in the committee is supposed to be. Vern Redifer, representing Yakima County, said the county is the “driver of the bus” and sets the agenda for meetings.
Redifer said he agreed with Davenport’s decision to allow the presentation by the lawyers and ran it by County Commissioner Rand Elliott, who also approved. He accused members of the group of not having any trust in the county.
“We are not going to bring someone in here that will explode this group,” he said. “There has to be some trust. Over and over again people have come up to me and said ‘we’re going nowhere, you have to show some leadership.’ This was an effort at leadership. It apparently was a bad effort.”
He said the county cannot take the time and manpower to contact all 21 members of the commission beforehand to approve every item on a meeting agenda.
Turner disagreed, and said that bringing something as controversial as the dairy settlement, which came about due to a lawsuit that had its origins in the early meetings of the groundwater group, was highly inappropriate.
“You are dragging all of us into this,” he said. “In a lawsuit like this there is always a losing side.”
Davenport said helping with the settlement is in the best interests of the public and that he had made it clear from the start that he didn’t speak for the committee. He said the committee members had the option to say they will not help, but he felt it was important for the group to hear what the lawyers had to say.
As Davenport began to lose his temper, speaking loudly at Turner, Crowe interrupted him and reminded him of the history of the lawsuit, noting that she herself had been involved.
“I’ve already had a part in it,” she said. “I don’t want to be involved anymore.”
Steve George of the Yakima County Farm Bureau said he might agree that the groundwater group has a role to play in the settlement, but he did not want to hear about it from the lawyers. He argued bringing in lawyers adds to the tension already existing in the group.
The group did not come to a consensus on whether or not to have a presentation. The discussion ended with Redifer reminding committee members that anything communicated to him via e-mail is part of the public record.
“Anything and everything that touches my inbox could be read on the front page of the newspaper,” he said. “This is a warning. I would suggest there be much more civility. Be careful what you put in there.”
Kirk Cook of the Washington Department of Agriculture seconded the warning, telling committee members that for every meeting they’ve had so far there has been a public information request two days later asking for all the email leading up to the meeting.