The National Association of Farmer Elected Committee Members
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National Association of Farmer Elected Committees
Comments on Proposed County Committee Election Reforms
The National Association of Farmer Elected Committees (NAFEC) has several concerns with the Proposed Uniform Guidelines for Conducting Farm Service Agency County Committee Elections which were issued by USDA on August 17, 2004. As the organization representing farmer elected county committees, we respectfully request that policymakers consider our following comments before adopting the proposed reforms. We strongly urge the Secretary of Agriculture to extend the deadline for commenting on the proposed regulation changes for an additional 30 days to allow farmers and other effected groups to review the broad reaching changes to the election system and write comments to be considered before the regulations become final.
Before addressing specific items, we would like to note for the record that we resent not being consulted on the proposed guidelines before they were issued. Even though the proposed changes will arguably impact our membership more than any other stakeholder, NAFEC was denied any bonafide opportunity for input. This oversight is inexcusable and completely ignores the collective experience of our farmer elected committees in conducting elections. Our exclusion insults a committee system which has fairly and faithfully served the interests of our agricultural community for well over half a century.
If the need for reform resulted from abuses by farmer elected committees, NAFEC could more easily embrace the proposed changes. However, such is not the case. The discretionary authority to issue uniform election guidelines which was granted to the Secretary in the 2002 Farm Bill resulted from abuses by appointed committees of the old Farmers Home Administration. Moreover, the 2002 and 2003 national election reports that were mandated thereunder reflect only that socially disadvantaged (SDA) producers in a limited number of counties are under-represented. Nothing therein supports an argument that elected FSA County committees have not fairly represented their producers. Despite this, the proposed changes incorporate elements of the very model which gave rise to the need for reform in the first place. Why repeat the mistakes of the past by politicizing our farmer elected committee system through appointment of voting members?
Arbitrary appointment by the Secretary is neither the only way, nor the best way, to achieve fair representation for under- represented groups. NAFEC has consistently advocated that the current practice of appointing minority advisors should be modified to allow for a fully participating committee member to be elected as the at-large minority representative in any county with a significant socially disadvantaged producer population that is currently under-represented.
NAFEC believes that it is imperative that all committee members be elected, including those necessary to protect the interests of currently under-represented producers in any particular county. Our county committee system is predicated upon the principle that the election process is the only way to insure that county committees remain accountable and responsive to the producers they serve. You cannot have fair representation for any group, whether SDA or not, unless the committee person representing their interest is accountable to his or her constituency.
NAFEC’s position on specific items in the Proposed Uniform Guidelines are as follows:
I. County Committee Election Outreach and Communication Efforts
NAFEC fully supports a coordinated outreach and communication effort. Moreover, NAFEC welcomes any assistance that FSA State offices or the national office can provide that lessens the burden on already under-staffed county offices to fully involve SDA producers in the election process. NAFEC also notes that this section of the proposed guidelines ignores the option of using existing community committees to augment and supplement FSA’s outreach efforts.
II. County Committee Election Procedures
A. Local Administrative Areas: NAFEC is not opposed to annual LAA boundary or compliance reviews. We are, however, concerned about the potential for gerrymandering that is implicit in item 2 of this subsection.
B. Eligible Voters: NAFEC has no objection to any item in this subsection.
C. Nominations: NAFEC has no objection to any item in this subsection. However, we are curious whether a nomination by an organization representing non-SDA producers would be valid also?
D. Slate of Candidates:
1. NAFEC believes that there should never be less than two valid candidates on the ballot since that is the only way to ensure that an alternate will be available to serve should the need arise.
2. NAFEC believes that discretionary appointment by the Secretary should be resorted to if, and only if, both the County and State committees, respectively, have been unable to complete the slate of nominees after a diligent search.
3. NAFEC does not oppose accepting write-in candidates under the conditions stipulated.
4. NAFEC opposes the nomination of any candidate by the Secretary after the nomination deadline has passed if the County Committee has completed a slate of nominees pursuant to item 1 of this subsection.
E. Balloting and Vote Tabulation
1. NAFEC does not oppose item 1.
2. FSA State offices are ill-equipped to receive, sort and return voted ballots accurately and timely. FSA State offices are already inundated with an overwhelming volume of mail to process. Returning ballots to a State office for processing will restrict any realistic opportunity for personally delivering ballots and further discourage voter participation. Safeguards, including a requirement that county offices maintain ballots in sealed boxes until an advertised count that is open to the public, are already in place to promote the integrity of FSA elections. Committee elections are subject to audit and can be nullified if conducted improperly under existing procedures. Adding an unnecessary step will only increase the likelihood for irregularity or error in the ballot handling and counting process. There are also additional shipping and handling costs associated with State office processing which must be considered. NAFEC does not believe that mailing ballots to the State office does anything to improve the transparency of County Committee elections since that process is completely transparent already. It is a foolish waste of administrative funds and employee time.
3. FSA county offices are already required to maintain ballots in a sealed box and to give advance notice of the date of the vote counting. Ballot opening and counting have always been open to the public. The only change contemplated by this item is that the ballots have been processed by the State office. As evident from the response to item two in this subsection, NAFEC considers this redundant and wasteful. Interim processing by a State Office will unnecessarily complicate an already complicated election process. It is poorly thought through and should not be adopted.
F. Challenges: NAFEC has no objection to any item in this subsection.
G. Term Limits: NAFEC is adamantly opposed to reducing term limits from three to two consecutive terms. Same ignores the difficulty in finding eligible producers who are willing to serve and the need for continuity on our county committees. It also ignores the significant costs associated with orientating and training new committee members that will result if terms are reduced. Moreover, NAFEC is unable to find any evidence of a correlation between term limits and fairly representative committees in the 2002-2003 election reports upon which these uniform guidelines were supposedly based. Furthermore, reducing the terms committee members may serve would severely hamper those member of the committee representing socially disadvantaged groups who have been nominated and voted on to become regular committee members.
III. Reporting and Accountability Requirements
NAFEC fully supports any effort to improve reporting and accountability for county committee elections and so does not oppose any items in this section.
IV. Additional Election Reform Efforts
NAFEC is fully committed to the concept of fair representation on FSA county committees. However, it does not believe that centralization of the election process will further that goal. Local control of election processes is a mainstay of our democratic system. The problems experienced in the 2003 committee elections argue against any attempt to abandon that standard in favor of further centralization.
NAFEC also opposes Secretarial appointment of any voting member, SDA or otherwise, to FSA county committees. As noted in our introductory comments, we favor modifying the existing procedures to allow for elected at-large and fully-privileged minority representatives. NAFEC believes that appointing voting members dilutes the accountability and credibility of our county committee system. It usurps the authority of elected committees and is contrary to our most sacred social and political traditions. Elected representation is the only way to achieve and sustain fair and equitable representation for all the producers we serve. We have discussed this with various minority producer groups who have indicated that they are not averse to our position. The appointment of voting members of County Committees will inject politics into non-partisan committees.
V. Implementation of Uniform Guidelines
A. No comment.
B. NAFEC supports the concept of comprehensive monitoring of county offices to ensure compliance with regulations and procedures governing County Committee elections.
C. NAFEC agrees that the FSA national office should be obligated to provide appropriate training for county offices and committees necessary for the proper implementation of any changes made to our existing election process. NAFEC has urged county committee training but due to budget constraints COC has not been adequate.
D. NAFEC believes that the Secretary has not fully considered the implications and consequences of these proposed guidelines. Consequently, we urge that they not be immediately implemented pursuant to our foregoing arguments.