The race for Director of East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Zone 1, remains the last unknown result from this year's ballot. More than 35,000 write-in votes are being tallied to determine the winner of the surprisingly heated race.
Three candidates campaigned for the volunteer position overseeing the district's $12.9 million budget, but a dispute over eligibility requirements eliminated one of the three.
The candidate deemed ineligible was Rachelle Dixon, who, as vice chair, is just the second African-American woman to hold an executive position with the Multnomah County Democrats.
The other two candidates were Paula Gagnon, who holds a similar office in Clackamas County, and Gabrielle Rossi, a member of an east county farming family.
Unlike other races in the state, write-in candidates for SWCD positions have to file a request to have write-in votes tallied. All three candidates filed by the Oct. 23 deadline, but the state determined that only two of the three candidates qualified.
In October, the Oregon Department of Agriculture determined that even if Dixon earned more write-in votes than any other candidate, she was not eligible for the role. Dixon disputed the decision, and the state reevaluated, but eventually reaffirmed their initial decision.
"This election was not decided by vote. It was decided by a maze of rules," Dixon wrote in a note to supporters on Wednesday.
Eligibility requirements for zone directors include owning or managing at least 10 acres of land in the district, unless the candidate has served a year as director or associate director of a SWCD.
The state determined that several of the properties Dixon manages fall outside of the zone needed for her to be eligible. Dixon accepted the Department of Agriculture's final decision but took issue with the convoluted rules, arguing that the rules are "not published, not clear, or [are] simply outdated and not applicable."
"By farming in community spaces, like churches, schools, community center and even homeowners property, I easily meet these requirements [although] it is about a half an acre at a time," Dixon wrote on her campaign Facebook page before the election. "I learned after filing that I am somewhat unique [in] having minor properties all over the zone rather than continuous acreage. This actually is one of the aspects I am most proud of. This is what community building looks like," Dixon said.
"The process has been somewhat disenfranchising, but the process is being refined as I write this and I am pleased that going forward this will not be a problem for others," Dixon said Tuesday.
SWCDs are non-regulatory agencies aiming to improve soil and water quality. Those elected to the SWCD boards are responsible for setting policy and program priorities, supervising the operation of the SWCD, and adopting the $12.9 million budget. In addition to the volunteer board, the East Multnomah SWCD has 20 full-time staff who run programs and workshops for rural and urban residents and provide funding and assistance to conservation projects, new farms, and natural resource protection initiatives.
Gagnon currently serves as associate director for the Clackamas SWCD, where she owns a 39-acre farm. She has lived in Portland since 2008. "Conservation of soil and water has been the focus of my work for the past two decades," Gagnon says, describing work in the Missouri River Basin, Sacramento River Basin, and Salmon River Basin.
Rossi is the fifth generation to run Rossi Farms, a farm and event venue in the Parkrose neighborhood. She graduated from Portland State University in 2011, according to the farm's website. Rossi did not respond to requests for an interview.
Across Oregon's 45 SWCDs, there are 161 SWCD positions up for election this year, according to Sandi Hiatt, an SWCD administrator at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. This year, no candidates filed for 41 of the 161 positions. In 13 of those, write-in candidates filed to have votes tallied. The remaining 28 will become vacant on Jan. 1, after current directors complete their terms. SWCD boards can then appoint a director until the next general election.
Dixon took a sunny view of the Multnomah result.
"I know that the decision went against me, but I hesitate to call it a loss. I feel like a community of progressive minded folks formed a bond to make change," Dixon wrote after the election.