Proposed guidelines for conducting Farm Service Agency county committee elections would “further erode the authorities these committees are granted to carry out the mandates issued by Congress,” says the president of the National Association of Farmer Elected Committees (NAFEC).

The proposed guidelines, issued Aug. 17 by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, call for more transparency in the election process for country committees.

County committees oversee local Farm Service Agency operations and make important decisions about the administration of commodity, disaster, conservation, farm loan, and agricultural programs in their communities. This grassroots approach gives farmers and ranchers a say in how federal actions affect their communities and their individual operations.

“To say the least, we are very unhappy with the direction the department has taken with respect to our democratically-elected committees and the usurpation of those committees' authorities,” says Cole Sims, head of NAFEC, which has been representing the county committee system since 1965.

In a letter to the USDA on behalf of NAFEC, Cole notes that such transparency is already provided, and that rather “we believe the lack of transparency is at the administrative level of the USDA — and at the Farm Service Agency in particular.”

Never consulted

NAFEC, he says, “was never consulted on these guidelines that will alter and corrupt the county committee elections under the guise of increasing representation on county committees by underrepresented groups, or as USDA calls them, ‘socially disadvantaged (SDA) farmers and ranchers.’”

Sims maintains that NAFEC “has long advocated for minority advisors to have all the rights and responsibilities of regular county committee members and has called for an elected at-large minority seat on the county committee in those counties determined to have a significant socially disadvantaged producer population not represented on the county committee. Our position is that only those who are considered to be members of the under-represented group be allowed to nominate candidates for the position.”

Several of the proposed guideline changes would have a serious impact on our ability to carry out necessary programs,” he says.

“One of the most extreme of these measures would reduce the three-year terms of county committee members from three terms to two. This would erode the institutional knowledge needed to carry out programs.”

The proposed rules, Sims says, do not say whether the term limits would be retroactive or whether they would pertain to those county committee members elected under the new guidelines should they remain as they are written.

“We fail to see how reducing term limits will help in any way, because it will also limit years of service for socially disadvantaged producers who are currently voting members of the COC.”

Another “troubling proposal,” he says, is to give the secretary of Agriculture the authority to appoint a minority voting member of the committee, should it be determined that there are socially disadvantaged producers not represented on a specific county committee.

Inject politics

“In addition to gaining the authority to appoint socially disadvantaged producers, the secretary may nominate to the slate, regardless of whether any nominations have been filed with or without respect to race, gender, ethnicity, etc., as we understand the language in the Federal Register. These actions would inject politics into the county committee. This is contrary to the current non-partisan system in place, and we believe it is entirely unacceptable in a democratic system.

“The county committee should not be appointed by either the secretary or the state committee,” Sims maintains, “but should continue in the fashion intended by Congress — as a locally controlled committee, elected by local producers who understand the issues that each county faces. This action would place appointed socially disadvantaged producers of local COCs in the same light as politically appointed state committees, which are not equal in authority to COC members elected by their peers.”

‘Ripe for disaster’

There is a provision in the proposed guidelines, Sims says, that would force producers to send their ballots to their respective state offices. It would then be the responsibility of the state offices to sort the ballots in the correct boxes and ship the sealed boxes to the correct county office to be opened in public.

“Altering the structure of how the ballots are handled is ripe for disaster,” he says. “Recent memory shows how poorly the ballots were handled in the last election when ballots were sent out late, sent to wrong addresses and to ineligible votes, or were never received by producers. How can we be sure, especially in an election with a secretarial nominee, that all the ballots will be put into the correct boxes and not ‘mishandled’ by a political appointee in the state office?”

County offices have done a great job at conducting transparent elections for years, Sims says, “and to change it now and politicize the county committee is a misconceived notion to try to inject socially disadvantaged producers into the county committee structure, which has already been done. We also are concerned about the amount of manpower required in state offices to handle the ballots.”

Not beneficial

The proposal to rearrange local administrative areas (LAAs) to accommodate socially disadvantaged producers would not be beneficial to the producers and landowners of a given county, he says. “Gerrymandering LAAs would likely only serve to have committee persons representing areas of counties and producers they are less familiar with. NAFEC's proposal for an ‘at-large’ minority seat would effectively eliminate the need for such unnecessary rearrangement.”

NAFEC is opposed to contracting out county committee elections, Sims says. “Our entire election system in the United States is county-based, all the way from the president to local offices, and is handled within the counties where the electorate resides. It is an affront to FSA county Offices and to the public at large to have FSA contract out the election to a private firm.”

The proposed new guidelines call for more outreach, but he says, “We believe the USDA has disregarded the community committee as a cost-effective means for outreach.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com