[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 108 (Tuesday, June 5, 2012)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 33063-33075]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-13358]



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Rules and Regulations
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Federal Register / Vol. 77, No. 108 / Tuesday, June 5, 2012 / Rules 
and Regulations

[[Page 33063]]



DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Office of the Secretary

7 CFR Part 7

RIN 0560-AG90


Selection and Functions of Farm Service Agency State and County 
Committees

AGENCY: Office of the Secretary, USDA.

ACTION: Interim rule.

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SUMMARY: This rule amends the regulations governing the selection and 
functions of Farm Service Agency (FSA) State and county committees. The 
amendments are needed to make the regulations consistent with the Farm 
Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (the 2002 Farm Bill) and the 
Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 Farm Bill). The 
intent of the amendments is to ensure that socially disadvantaged 
farmers and ranchers are appropriately represented on county 
committees, to make the county committee election process more open and 
accountable, and to clarify requirements for committee membership in 
the situation where existing county committees are consolidated or 
combined. All of these amendments have already been implemented by FSA, 
except for the new provisions specifying that the Secretary may appoint 
a voting member to the county committee when required to ensure fair 
representation of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. There 
will be no change in State and County Committee functions and election 
procedures as a result of this rule, except for limited appointments of 
socially disadvantaged voting members. This rule is needed to make the 
regulations consistent with current FSA practice.

DATES: Effective Date: September 4, 2012.
    Comment Date: We will consider comments that we receive by August 
6, 2012.

ADDRESSES: We invite you to submit comments on this interim rule. In 
your comment, include the Regulation Identifier Number (RIN) and the 
volume, date, and page number of this issue of the Federal Register. 
You may submit comments by any of the following methods:
     Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the online instructions for submitting 
comments.
     Mail: Barbara Boyd, Field Operations Program Manager, FSA, 
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Mail Stop 0542, 1400 
Independence Avenue SW., Washington, DC 20250-0542.
     Hand Delivery or Courier: Deliver comments to the above 
address.
    All written comments will be available for inspection online at 
www.regulations.gov and at the mail address above during business hours 
from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except holidays. A copy 
of this interim rule is available through the FSA home page at http://www.fsa.usda.gov/.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Barbara Boyd; telephone: (202) 720-
7890. Persons with disabilities or who require alternative means for 
communications should contact the USDA Target Center at (202) 720-2600 
(voice and TDD).

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    Section 10708 of the 2002 Farm Bill (Pub. L. 107-171) mandates 
several changes in the election process for FSA county committees and 
in the functions of both State and County committees in conducting 
county committee elections. Section 1615 of the 2008 Farm Bill (Pub. L. 
110-246) makes minor additional changes. This interim rule implements 
those changes in the regulations, and also makes additional clarifying 
changes in response to comments on a previous proposed rule for the 
2002 Farm Bill changes. This rule includes provisions for the 
appointment of a voting member to a county committee, which is 
authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, but has not been implemented.
    Consistent with the 2002 Farm Bill, the purpose of the amendments 
is to increase the transparency and accountability of county elections 
and to provide opportunities for the nondiscriminatory participation of 
socially disadvantaged (SDA) farmers and ranchers in county committees 
and in the programs of USDA. The 2002 Farm Bill requires several 
actions by FSA to achieve those goals. These regulations are one of 
those actions; the other actions include collecting and reporting 
extensive data on the results of county committee elections and 
establishing Uniform Guidelines for conducting those elections. The 
2008 Farm Bill requires additional changes to increase the maximum 
number of county committee members in the situation where counties are 
combined or consolidated into a single multi-county office, and to 
clarify that a farmer or rancher may serve only on the county committee 
for the county office where their farm records are administered.
    This interim rule follows a proposed rule published in the Federal 
Register on November 28, 2006 (71 FR 68755-68762). The 60-day comment 
period for the proposed rule closed on January 29, 2007; 13 comments 
were submitted. The issues raised in the comments and the resulting 
changes to the rule in response to those comments are discussed later 
in this document. The changes between the proposed and interim rule in 
response to comments are minor because most of the issues raised by the 
commenters have already been addressed or can be addressed with minor 
clarifying changes.
    The ``Uniform Guidelines for Conducting Farm Service Agency County 
Committee Elections'' (the Uniform Guidelines) were published in the 
Federal Register on January 18, 2005 (70 FR 2837-2842). These 
regulations are consistent with the Uniform Guidelines. The Uniform 
Guidelines are available on the FSA Web site at www.usda.fsa.gov/elections.
    This rule uses the phrase ``county committee'' in both the preamble 
and in the regulations. A county committee may have jurisdiction over a 
geographical area that is different from an actual county, such as more 
than one county, or a county and a Tribal area. The proposed rule and 
the current regulations refer to ``area committees'' for county 
committees that have jurisdiction over more than one county,

[[Page 33064]]

which some commenters found confusing, so this interim rule does not 
use that phrase.
    This document first provides background information on county 
committees, then discusses the changes to county committee procedures 
specified in this rule. Most of the changes have already been 
implemented. Comments on the previous proposed rule, and our responses 
to those comments, are at the end of the preamble, followed by the 
amended regulations.

Background on County Committees

    County committees were originally authorized by Congress in the 
1930s to allow for grassroots input and local administration of 
Agricultural Adjustment Administration programs. At that time, local 
farmers elected delegates to a county convention, which selected the 
members of the county committee. Direct election of county committee 
members has been FSA practice since FSA itself was authorized by the 
Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of Agriculture 
Reauthorization Act of 1994 (Pub. L. 103-334).
    County committees provide local input on the administration of FSA 
programs, including commodity price support loans and payments, 
conservation programs, disaster payments, and emergency programs. 
Committee members are a critical component of the day-to-day operations 
of FSA. They help deliver and provide outreach for FSA Farm Programs at 
the local level. Farmers who serve on committees help decide the kind 
of programs their counties will offer. They provide input on how to 
improve program delivery. They work to make FSA agricultural programs 
serve the needs of local farmers and ranchers, and help local farmers 
and ranchers know what programs are available. The duties of county 
committees currently include:
     Informing farmers of the purpose and provisions of FSA 
programs;
     Keeping the State FSA Committee informed of local 
administrative area (LAA) conditions;
     Monitoring changes in farm programs;
     Participating in monthly county meetings;
     Directing outreach activities;
     Making recommendations to the State committee on existing 
programs;
     Conducting hearings and reviews as requested by the State 
committee; and
     Ensuring socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers are 
fairly represented.
    County committee decisions are made by consensus. Committee members 
vote to come to consensus on various items, for example, yield 
determination for the county, the county executive director (CED) 
ratings, and approving producer applications when required for various 
Farm Programs.
    County committees do not oversee the administration of FSA direct 
or guaranteed farm operating loans or ownership loans. Those are 
administered by FSA federal employees.
    There are currently more than 7,700 committee members serving on 
more than 2,200 committees nationwide. More than 235,000 ballots were 
cast in the 2010 county elections. Elected committee members serve for 
a 3-year term, and roughly one-third of seats are up for election each 
year. There are term limits, which enables beginning farmers and those 
who have not participated in the past have an opportunity to serve. 
This rule adds provisions specifying that the Secretary may appoint an 
SDA voting member when there is no elected SDA member and one is needed 
to ensure fair representation. In the context of this rule, SDA groups 
are women, African Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, 
Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Appointed members 
serve a 1-year term and also have term limits. The determination of the 
need for an appointed member will be performed after each annual 
election.
    Nomination forms for county elections are distributed to all 
eligible voters by June 15th of each year; the forms are also available 
online and at all county offices. Anyone who is an eligible voter can 
nominate themself or another person to be on the slate of candidates. 
An organization, such as a local nonprofit, Tribal government, or local 
Tribal organizations representing SDA farmers, can also nominate a 
candidate. Nominations are due in August, and elections take place in 
December. Anyone of legal voting age who lives in the county, or whose 
FSA farm records are administered in the county, and participates in a 
USDA program or has provided the county office with information about 
their farming operation, can vote in the election. Minors can vote if 
they are in charge of the operations on an entire farm. The person 
receiving the most votes in the election serves on the county 
committee, and the first and second runners up may serve as alternates, 
if they meet the eligibility requirements and agree to serve.
    County committees may also have appointed non-voting SDA advisors. 
The appointment of those advisors is one of the efforts USDA has made 
to address the concerns in the 2002 Farm Bill about fair representation 
of SDA farmers and ranchers on county committees. Non-voting SDA 
advisors are recommended by the local county committee, in consultation 
with local groups and local Tribal organizations, representing SDA 
farmers and ranchers, and appointed by the State committee. Advisors 
attend county committee meetings and ensure that SDA issues and 
viewpoints are understood and considered in FSA actions. Non-voting 
advisors do not have the authority to sign documents or vote on county 
committee actions.
    The county committee is the official employer of CED, and in the 
case of a vacancy, will be responsible for selecting the new CED.
    As discussed in the next section, this rule updates the regulations 
to make them consistent with current practice, but does not change the 
role of county committees or county committee voting members from 
current practice, with the exception of the new appointment authority.

Amendments to the Regulation That Are Consistent With Current FSA 
Practice

    This interim rule amends 7 CFR part 7 ``Selection and Functions of 
Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation State, County, and 
Community Committees.'' Those regulations were most recently updated in 
1994, and are no longer consistent with current FSA practice. This rule 
makes substantive changes to the regulations that are needed to add 
requirements from the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills. This section of the 
document discusses the amendments to the regulations that have already 
been implemented administratively. The next section discusses the new 
provisions to appoint SDA members that have not yet been implemented.
    In addition to the changes required by the two Farm Bills, this 
rule also removes obsolete terms. This rule removes text that does not 
relate to public compliance and is therefore appropriately addressed in 
FSA handbooks and directives. It changes the name of the part to 
``Selection and Functions of Farm Service Agency State and County 
Committees.''
    This rule includes definitions for ``participate'' and 
``cooperate.'' These terms, which are specified in the 2002 Farm Bill, 
are used to clarify who is eligible to vote in county elections and be 
nominated to serve on county committees. Farmers and ranchers who 
``participate,'' meaning they receive

[[Page 33065]]

assistance, benefits, or services from USDA or indirectly through 
another federal government agency, may vote in county elections and be 
nominated as county committee members. Farmers and ranchers who provide 
information to the FSA county office about their farming operation, 
thus meeting the definition of ``cooperate'' in Sec.  7.3 of this rule, 
may also be eligible voters and nominees even if they do not directly 
receive benefits or services from USDA. For example, farmers who grow 
specialty crops that do not qualify for FSA programs and beginning 
farmers may qualify to vote by providing information about their 
farming operation to the county office. Those who do not both own and 
operate their farm, such as landowners, tenants, and sharecroppers, may 
qualify to vote by providing such information. USDA uses this 
information to better understand the agricultural communities that our 
programs serve, or might serve in the future. We also wish to ensure 
that persons who have an interest in farming that may not qualify for 
our programs at this time have an opportunity to be represented on the 
county committee.
    The additional requirements for eligibility for county committee 
members in this rule, including term limits for elected members, are 
largely unchanged from the current regulations. The requirement that a 
voter who operates a farm or ranch in more than one local 
administrative area (LAA) in a county can only vote in any election in 
any one LAA is unchanged. (An LAA is similar to a precinct or voting 
district in function.) Similarly, the requirements for spouse 
eligibility and entity eligibility are unchanged. This rule specifies 
that the county office will maintain the list of eligible voters in the 
county and must disclose that list to the public, which is also not a 
new requirement.
    The regulations for the establishment of LAAs are revised to be 
consistent with current practice and with the two Farm Bills. The 

current regulations specify exactly three LAAs per county, with some 
exceptions that include fewer than three LAAs per county. The revised 
regulations specify at least 3 LAAs per county, with up to 11 LAAs for 
county committees that have jurisdiction over multiple counties. The 
purpose of having more LAAs is, in part, to ensure that SDA 
representation is not reduced when county offices are combined. In some 
circumstances, such as a very large county or one with many farms, a 
single county committee can have up to five LAAs. The LAA boundaries 
will be determined by the State committee, after considering 
recommendations from the county committee in which an LAA is located. 
The county committee must give public notice of LAA designations before 
the election and nomination processes. FSA has already implemented 
these provisions through handbooks and the Uniform Guidelines.
    This rule revises the nomination process regulations to be 
consistent with current FSA practice. The revisions make the nomination 
process and deadlines provisions more clear and specific than the 
current regulations. Nominations for county committee are due not less 
than 90 days before the election date. The nomination form is 
distributed to eligible voters and is also available at county offices 
and on the internet at http://www.sc.egov.usda.gov. Nominees must meet 
eligibility requirements, which include residing in the LAA for which 
the election is being held and being willing to serve if elected. The 
eligibility requirements for nominees, county committee members, and 
other personnel are largely unchanged from the current regulations. As 
specified in the 2008 Farm Bill, a farmer or rancher with farming 
interests in multiple LAAs or counties can only serve on the county 
committee in the jurisdiction where their FSA records are administered.
    This rule has revised provisions, consistent with the Uniform 
Guidelines, on how the slate of candidates for the election will be 
determined. The slate of candidates for a county committee election 
will typically consist of the farmers and ranchers nominated through 
the public solicitation of nominees. If at least one nomination is 
filed, the county committee will not take any action to add more 
nominees to the slate, although write-in candidates are always allowed. 
If no nominations are received, which is not common, the existing 
county committee will develop a slate of candidates following the 
procedures in the Uniform Guidelines. As specified in the Uniform 
Guidelines, if there are no nominations, the Secretary and the State 
committee may nominate up to two individuals to the slate. If they 
choose not to do so, the county committee must ensure that the slate is 
filled by selecting two nominees. Slates developed by the county 
committee must include at least one individual representing the 
interests of SDA farmers and ranchers.
    The current regulation provides that election dates will be held 
sometime after July 1st each year, on a date or within a time period 
specified by the Deputy Administrator. This rule includes more specific 
requirements to give the public advance notice at least 30 days before 
the election on how, where, and when eligible voters may vote. FSA has 
already implemented this. FSA holds all the county elections at the 
same time every year, with ballots available in November and counted in 
December. The elections are widely publicized at the county, State, 
Tribal, and national levels. As specified in this rule, the public may 
observe the opening and counting of the ballots, and the county 
committee must provide at least 10 days advance notice of the date, 
time, and place at which the ballots will be opened and counted.
    Occasionally, there is a vacancy on the county committee that 
occurs outside of the normal election cycle, such as when a member 
resigns or moves away. This rule specifies that in the case of a 
vacancy, there can be a special election to fill the vacancy, or the 
State committee may designate an alternate to serve out the remaining 
term. While the option to have the State committee designate an 
alternate is specified in the regulation so that FSA can exercise that 
option if needed, special elections are normally held to fill 
vacancies. The obsolete provisions on vacancies in the current 
regulations that specify the procedures for the county conventions and 
community committees to fill the vacancies are removed, but those 
provisions have not been used in many years because those entities have 
not been authorized since 1994.
    The challenges and appeals requirements regarding the voter 
eligibility or results of a county committee election follow the 
Uniform Guidelines and current practice and are largely unchanged from 
the current regulations. Obsolete references to challenging the results 
of county conventions have been removed. This rule includes specific 
requirements to allow nominees to challenge the results of elections 
within required times and to allow a special election if the election 
is nullified.
    The 2002 Farm Bill requires FSA to collect and report detailed 
information on county election results. Therefore, the regulations 
include new requirements for FSA county committees to collect this 
information and provide it to the FSA national office. This information 
is already being collected and reported. FSA publishes this information 
annually, and it is available on our Web site at www.fsa.usda.gov/elections. Election results for 2002 through 2010 are currently posted.
    The political activity restrictions and personnel actions 
procedures were modified in the regulation to be

[[Page 33066]]

consistent with the specific procedures in FSA handbooks and directives 
that are already in use. Since the details are in the handbooks and 
directives, the provisions now reference the appropriate handbooks and 
directives. Obsolete appeals provisions were removed.

New Provisions To Appoint SDA Members to County Committees

    The 2002 Farm Bill grants the Secretary the authority to appoint a 
committee member to a committee to achieve the goal of fair 
representation in a county committee jurisdiction. The 2008 Farm Bill 
requires the Secretary to develop procedures to maintain SDA 
representation on county committees.
    Since the 2002 Farm Bill, USDA has increased outreach to SDA 
communities to encourage participation in COC elections. SDA non-voting 
advisors have been appointed by State committees to many county 
committees. However, voter turnout has remained low among all groups, 
and particularly among SDA farmers and ranchers, whose voter 
participation rate is about 7 percent. That is about half the voter 
participation rate for all eligible voters. USDA has also collected and 
analyzed extensive data on county committee election results, and found 
that a few counties (about 5 percent) still do not have fair 
representation of SDA farmers and ranchers. Given the continued low SDA 
voter turnout, despite sustained and extensive outreach over the past 
decade, it is unlikely that the regular election process alone will 
result in fair SDA representation on all county committees. An 
additional effort is needed to achieve fair representation on county 
committees in a few cases. USDA has therefore decided to utilize the 
appointment authority provided in the 2002 Farm Bill.
    In the preamble to the 2006 proposed rule, USDA stated that ``in 
the event the Secretary does decide to utilize the appointment 
authority, the Secretary will only do so after providing an opportunity 
for the public to comment on the proposed provisions under which such 
appointments will be made.'' This interim rule provides that 
opportunity for public comment. This rule specifies in 7 CFR 7.17 that 
the Secretary will use the discretionary authority to make appointments 
when such appointments are necessary to maintain fair representation. 
USDA will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the Uniform 
Guidelines and these regulations to ensure that they are sufficient to 
ensure fair representation of SDA farmers and ranchers on county 
committees. If needed to ensure fair representation, the Secretary will 
use the authority to appoint committee members when the statistical 
evidence, measured at the county-level, demonstrates a lack of 
diversity and underrepresentation on selected county committees over a 
period of at least 4 years. The appointed committee member will be in 
addition to the elected voting members. The appointed member does not 
replace any of the elected members.
    This rule does not specify what specific procedures the Secretary 
will use to determine that an appointment is necessary. The method USDA 
currently plans to use to identify counties where an appointment is 
appropriate is as follows: USDA will first determine a baseline number 
of eligible voters in a county, using operator data in the Census of 
Agriculture and eligible-voter data in FSA records. The baseline 
eligible voter pool for each county committee will be measured annually 
against the demographics of the current committee to ensure fair 
representation each year on the committees and to identify where there 
is a need for increased SDA representation. The method used to 
determine if an appointment should be made will be a benchmark level of 
expected representation, which will be the number of SDA 
representatives expected in the county to ensure fair representation. 
The benchmark is a threshold percentage that is calculated as follows:

1 / 1 plus the current number of elected COC members

For example, if there are 3 elected county committee members, the 
threshold will be 1 divided by 4, or 25 percent. If more than 25 
percent of the eligible voters in the county are SDA, but there is no 
SDA voting member on the COC, that county will be considered for an SDA 
appointment. Where the county already has an SDA advisor, the Secretary 
plans to appoint that advisor as the SDA voting member.
    Our current analysis of 2010 election results shows that of the 
2,244 county committees, about 13 percent met the threshold where SDA 
representation would be expected based on the demographics of the 
eligible COC voters in the county. (In the example above, if 10 percent 
of the eligible voters in the county are SDA farmers and ranchers, but 
there is no SDA member on the existing 3-member COC, that county does 
not meet the threshold where an SDA voting member would be expected.) 
FSA analysis shows that 153 counties met the threshold where SDA 
representation would be expected based on race or ethnicity of eligible 
voters, and 160 counties met the threshold where SDA representation 
would be expected based on gender of eligible voters (28 counties were 
in both groups). Of these counties where SDA representation would be 
expected, over half already had an SDA voting member. Almost all of the 
counties where SDA representation would be expected already had a non-
voting SDA advisor. Only 17 counties that met the benchmark for 
expected SDA representation had neither an SDA voting member nor an SDA 
advisor.
    FSA analysis also considered observed historical voting patterns. 
FSA has collected detailed election data for the past decade of county 
committee elections, as required by the 2002 Farm Bill. Voting patterns 
are relevant because individual voting members may resign or reach term 
limits, resulting in a temporary lack of SDA representation. Only 
counties that have an observed pattern of non-representation for at 
least the past four election cycles will be considered for SDA 
appointments. Analysis of 2007 through 2010 election data found that 
about 5 percent of counties would be in this group. Counties that meet 
the benchmark for lacking SDA representation and do not currently have 
an SDA voting member, but have had one in at least one of the last four 
election cycles, will not be considered for appointments. Where 
counties do not currently have an SDA voting member, meet the benchmark 
for lacking SDA representation for at least four election cycles, and 
have an advisor, the Secretary plans to select the existing advisor as 
the appointed SDA voting member. The vast majority of the appointments 
(roughly 80 percent) are expected to be elevation to voting status of 
persons who are already serving on their local county office committee 
as a non-voting SDA advisor. In the few counties with no SDA advisor, 
the selection of an appointed member will follow the same procedure 
used to identify an SDA advisor, including, among other things, 
outreach to community based organizations.
    FSA will continue outreach efforts to increase SDA voter 
participation and SDA representation on county committees through the 
regular election process. We will also continue to update the 
statistical analysis with current year election data. Going forward, 
the appointment process will be used where and when it is needed to 
ensure fair representation of SDA farmers and ranchers. If in any year 
the statistical analysis finds that SDA farmers and ranchers are fairly 
represented on all county committees, then USDA will not

[[Page 33067]]

need to make any SDA appointments that year.

Removal of Obsolete Provisions and Other Technical Changes

    This rule removes the current section of the regulations specifying 
procedures for county conventions. All county committee elections are 
conducted by direct election by eligible voters. County conventions 
have not been used to select county committee members in many years, 
because they were removed from the authority with the reorganization of 
USDA required by the Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of 
Agriculture Reauthorization Act of 1994 (Pub. L. 103-334).
    This rule removes all references to community committees. Community 
committees were also removed from the underlying authority in 1994 as 
part of the USDA reorganization. Community areas are no longer used to 
establish the boundaries of LAAs, and have not been for many years.
    This rule removes the reference to consideration of at large and 
cumulative voting that were in Sec.  7.17 in the proposed rule because 
USDA assessed the at large and cumulative alternatives and found them 
not viable.
    As noted earlier, obsolete appeals and hearings provisions for 
appealing a suspension, disqualification, or removal from office are 
removed. Updated procedures are now in the employee handbooks and 
Uniform Guidelines.
    Non-substantive editorial changes were made throughout to improve 
clarity by providing plain language explanation of election procedures 
and by grouping related provisions in the same section. Plain language 
changes, such as replacing ``shall'' with ``will'' or ``must,'' have 
been made.

Discussion of Comments on Proposed Rule

    FSA received 13 comments on the proposed rule. The comments were 
received from agricultural associations and representative groups, 
Indian tribes and communities, FSA employee associations, an FSA county 
committee, USDA's Office of Inspector General, and individuals. The 
commenters generally supported the 2002 Farm Bill goals of making 
election processes more transparent and ensuring fair SDA 
representation, but requested clarification and objected to specific 
proposed regulatory provisions to implement those goals. Some issues 
raised by commenters were subsequently addressed in the 2008 Farm Bill. 
Most of the issues raised by commenters have already been addressed in 
current FSA practice.
    Comment: Provide addition clarification or further definition of 
the terms ``assistance,'' ``services,'' ``benefits,'' ``enroll,'' and 
``indirect service'' because these terms are used to establish 
eligibility.
    Response: FSA procedural handbooks will include the definitions of 
these terms. This rule specifically defines ``cooperate'' and 
``participate'' as they relate to voter eligibility. The other terms 
listed are not specific to the county election process and FSA does not 
use them in a different way from their dictionary meaning to establish 
voter eligibility, so therefore they are not defined in this rule.
    Comment: Please define and clarify the term ``fairly 
representative.'' A common dictionary meaning would mean that the 
committee's make-up is proportional to the make-up of the farming or 
ranching population of the administrative area in terms of race, 
ethnicity, and gender.
    Response: The 2002 Farm Bill and the Uniform Guidelines specify the 
information that we must collect to measure SDA farmer participation 
and representation. This information, including the total ballots cast 
by race, gender, and ethnicity, the total eligible voters in each 
category, and the total nominees in each category, is currently 
collected and reported on the FSA Web site. This information is 
collected and reported at the LAA, county, State, Tribal, and national 
levels. Detailed county election results are available on our Web site 
for the 2002 through 2010 elections. As required by Congress, these 
detailed statistics on participation rates at the LAA, county, State, 
Tribal, and national levels are how FSA measures SDA representation on 
our county committees and participation in the elections.
    The benchmark for what will be considered ``fairly representative'' 
for the purpose of appointments is a percentage that is calculated as 
follows:

1 / 1 plus the current number of COC members

For example, if there are 3 county committee members, the benchmark for 
fair representation will be 1 divided by 4, or 25 percent. If 25 
percent of the eligible voters in the county are SDA, and there is at 
least one SDA member on the COC, that county will be considered to have 
fair representation of SDA voters. If not, it will be considered for a 
Secretarial appointment of one SDA member. The 2002 Farm Bill does not 
provide authorization to appoint more than one member, nor does it 
specify strictly proportional representation as a goal.
    Comment: Provide clarification on whether both participants and 
cooperators would have voting rights and eligibility for county 
committees if they are reporting on the same tract of land. As written, 
both the landowner and the farm operator would have voting rights if 
they either participated or cooperated. We are particularly concerned 
that SDA farmers who are tenants, operators, or sharecroppers are 
eligible to vote.
    Response: Both a landowner and an operator may be eligible to vote 
based on reporting on the same tract of land. An owner and an operator 
are not an entity; they are both individuals both eligible to vote. 
Only one vote is allowed for an entity such as a cooperative or trust, 
but tenants and sharecroppers are unlikely to be entities.
    Comment: The time requirements that farmers and ranchers must have 
participated or cooperated within the past year to vote or be nominated 
appear to be in direct conflict with the goal of increasing SDA 
participation. The time frame should be increased.
    Response: Anyone who lives in the county can be eligible to vote or 
be nominated if they ``cooperate'' by providing information about their 
farming operation and their current name and address to the county 
office no later than the final date to return ballots (to be eligible 
to vote) or the final date for nomination forms (to run for county 
committee). So, if someone has not received farm benefits recently but 
wishes to vote in county elections, they should be able to easily meet 
the ``cooperate'' eligibility criteria by updating their records at the 
county office at any time up to the day ballots are due. Farmers and 
ranchers can be eligible voters under the cooperation requirement even 
if they have not participated in programs (received benefits or 
services) within the past year. They can provide their information the 
day they vote or pick up their ballot. Therefore, this requirement 
should not discourage SDA participation. It is unclear how a longer 
time frame would increase participation by SDA farmers or by any other 
group. The intent of the ``within the past year'' provision, as 
discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule, was in part to ensure 
that county committee members are elected by those who are directly 
affected by committee actions, including those who have participated in 
USDA programs in the past year.
    Comment: The regulations may exclude certain landowners that have 
been eligible voters.

[[Page 33068]]

    Response: The voter eligibility requirements are specified in the 
rule to ensure that farmers and ranchers, including landowners, are 
fully informed of the voter eligibility requirements. Please note that 
landowners who provide information to the FSA county office about their 
farming operation, thus meeting the definition of ``cooperate'' in 7 
CFR 7.3, may be eligible voters even if they do not directly receive 
benefits or services from USDA or from other federal agencies. To 
``cooperate,'' a landowner must provide their current name and address 
information to the county office.
    Comment: Some Tribal members may no longer be considered eligible 
voters under the proposed rules. Section 7.5 of the proposed rule says 
that they must be producers, and 7 CFR part 718 defines producers as a 
person who shares in the risk of producing a crop. Tribal members as 
owners of Tribal agricultural land may not meet the requirements for 
voter eligibility because most of the parcels are operated under a 
lease or permit. We recommend changing the definition of ``producer'' 
to include owners of crop producing lands.
    Response: As specified in this rule, a farmer or rancher is 
eligible to vote if they participated or cooperated in USDA programs, 
as participated and cooperated are defined in this rule. Specifically, 
a Tribal member of a tribe with Tribally owned agricultural land who 
provides their name and current address to the county office will meet 
the requirement of ``cooperate'' and be eligible to vote. In response 
to this comment, Sec.  7.5 has been modified to refer to ``farmers and 
ranchers,'' the term used for voters in the relevant sections of the 
2002 and 2008 Farm Bills.
    Comment: The rule isn't clear how the voter or FSA determines which 
LAA is the correct area for a voter with an interest in more than one 
LAA in the county.
    Response: A voter with an interest in more than one LAA in the 
county will vote based on the location of their home. As specified in 
Sec.  7.18, the LAA where the voter resides, or in cases where the LAA 
boundary or other jurisdictional boundary runs through a farm, the 
county office and LAA where the farm's FSA records are kept is the LAA 
for the voter.
    Comment: The proposed rule doesn't have language on how a producer 
can seek relief if they have been deemed ineligible to vote. That 
appeals provision is in the Uniform Guidelines but it should also be in 
the rule in Sec.  7.5, with the 15 day response period, like in the 
Uniform Guidelines.
    Response: This rule specifies in Sec.  7.15 that challenges and 
appeals on voter eligibility will be handled in accordance with the 
Uniform Guidelines. In response to this comment, an appeals provision 
specifically for voter eligibility has also been added to Sec.  7.5. 
This is not a change from current practice, or from the current 
regulations.
    Comment: Disciplinary action and political activity guidance should 
not be removed from the rule.
    Response: They are not entirely removed from the rule. The 
requirements are updated to be consistent with current legal 
requirements, and some details have been moved to FSA procedural 
handbooks and directives, which are the appropriate location for 
detailed disciplinary action and political activity guidance.
    Comment: The authority granted to the Secretary in the 2002 Farm 
Bill to appoint a voting member should not be included in the rule. 
Neither the Secretary of Agriculture nor anyone else should appoint 
members.
    Response: The Secretary was provided the authority in the 2002 Farm 
Bill to appoint a member to represent socially disadvantaged farmers 
and ranchers after a thorough analysis of the representation of 
socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in a particular county 
committee jurisdiction. The 2002 Farm Bill also required USDA to 
collect detailed election data, which we have done. USDA now has 
multiple years of data available to identify which counties do not 
currently have appropriate SDA representation, and have not had 
appropriate SDA representation in the recent past. The procedures for 
appointing SDA members are included in the regulations so that members 
of the public are fully informed of what actions USDA may take in the 
future to achieve appropriate SDA representation on a county committee.
    Comment: If the Secretary uses the authority to appoint SDA 
committee members, the regulations should require the Secretary to 
solicit and accept nominations from community-based organizations that 
represent SDA farmers and ranchers in the area.
    Response: When the authority is used, it will be in consultation 
with local organizations and Tribal organizations that represent SDA 
producers in the area, as was discussed in the notice published in the 
Federal Register in which the Uniform Guidelines were published. Where 
an SDA non-voting COC member exists, the Secretary will typically 
appoint that member as the SDA voting member, if such an appointment is 
made.
    Comment: Releasing the names and addresses of eligible voters to 
candidates for county committees may violate the Privacy Act.
    Response: The release of names and addresses is handled in 
accordance with the requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974. The 
Privacy Act requires that agencies publish a System of Records notice 
in the Federal Register with a period for public comment before 
personal information is collected, to inform the public on how 
collected information will be used. Personally identifiable information 
may be released for certain routine uses, which must be specified in 
the System of Records notice. The release of names and addresses of 
eligible voters to candidates for county committees was specifically 
listed as a ``routine use'' of that information in the System of 
Records notice that covers the collection of that information. Only 
names and addresses are provided to candidates; other information such 
as financial information about farming operations, geospatial 
information about farm tracts, etc., is not released to candidates.
    Comment: Restrict the use of the names and addresses to the county 
committee elections--prohibit anyone who received the list of names 
from selling it or using it for any political or profitable use. The 
list of voters must not be used for any other purpose than to inform or 
educate the voters in the capacity as county committee candidate.
    Response: We do not have the authority to restrict the use of this 
public information, however a disclaimer will be provided with the list 
of voters indicating that the information is for use in running as a 
COC candidate and should not be used for any other purpose.
    Comment: Maintain local control of FSA county committees' ability 
to supervise FSA county office employees. Provide further clarification 
on the proposed change to remove references to county office employee 
personnel actions from the regulations. Does this apply only to FSA 
county committee elections?
    Response: County committees retain the authority to employ a county 
executive director and are considered the supervisor(s) of record of 
the county executive director. Personnel actions will be conducted 
under official FSA handbook procedure with input from the county 
committee. The scope of the county committee authority regarding 
personnel actions is not limited to committee elections, and has not 
changed with this rule.

[[Page 33069]]

    Comment: On the LAA issue, the rule changed the intent of LAA 
delineation, which was meant for commodity similarities rather than for 
fair representation of producers.
    Response: The purpose of establishing LAAs has been and remains 
fair representation of farmers and ranchers in the county or larger 
area under the jurisdiction of a county committee. Commodities grown in 
an area are only one of many criteria used for LAA delineation. That 
has not changed with this rule.
    Comment: Increase the number of LAAs from 3 to 7.
    Response: This rule specifies up to 11 LAAs per county. The 2002 
Farm Bill allows 3 to 5 county committee members for a single county 
jurisdiction and the 2008 Farm Bill allows up to 11 members in a 
combined or consolidated county. That is reflected in this interim 
rule, and in current practice. The number of LAAs will correspond to 
the number of members on the county committee, which could be as many 
as 11 for a combined or consolidated committee.
    Comment: The Uniform Guidelines should be included in the 
regulation.
    Response: As noted above, the Uniform Guidelines were issued 
previously in the Federal Register. They are too extensive to include 
in the regulations, and include provisions that do not apply to members 
of the public. As revised by this rule, the regulations are consistent 
with the Uniform Guidelines. If the Uniform Guidelines are updated in 
the future, they will be published in the Federal Register. They are 
available on FSA's Web site at http://www.fsa.usda.gov/elections.
    Comment: A disinterested party should maintain the ballots and the 
ballots should not be handled by employees of the county committees.
    Response: While it is not appropriate for candidates to handle the 
ballots, FSA county employees may not run for election and are 
therefore disinterested parties. As specified in the Uniform 
Guidelines, any candidate may request that ballots be sent to the State 
FSA Office until the official counting, and the county committee must 
do so if requested.
    When the Uniform Guidelines were originally developed in 2004, FSA 
considered requiring that ballots be sent to the State FSA Office in 
all cases, and tested that approach in a pilot program. After a review 
of the pilot program, it was determined to be impractical to require 
this approach for all county committees, so it was decided to keep 
State office collection of ballots as an option, but not a requirement, 
unless a candidate requests it. That provision is in the final Uniform 
Guidelines and in this rule.
    Comment: The community committees should not be removed from the 
regulation. Community committees are a valuable resource.
    Response: The community committees are removed from the regulation 
because they have not been used since 1995. The authorization for 
community committees was removed from the relevant United States Code 
in 1994 as part of the Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of 
Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994.
    Comment: The Guidelines specify that only mail or hand-delivered 
ballots are allowed, but the rule in Sec.  7.11 provides for meeting or 
polling place method. The guidelines and the rule should be consistent.
    Response: The Guidelines will be updated to properly reflect the 
options for meeting or polling place method.
    Comment: The rule usually refers to county committees, but there 
are a few references to area committees that are potentially confusing.
    Response: Those references have been removed from the interim rule 
to address this comment. Area committees is a commonly used term for 
county committees that have jurisdiction over multiple counties.
    Comment: FSA should include a provision setting forth an 
appropriate retention period for county committees to maintain books, 
records, and documents in Sec.  7.30, which only specifies the 
retention period for ballots.
    Response: The proper retention period for the various program and 
administrative records are documented in applicable agency handbooks 
and are not needed in this rule. Retention periods vary depending on 
program or administrative function.
    Comment: When Tribal lands cross state boundaries, Tribal farmers 
and ranchers also be able to have the ability for unified decision-
making and implementation by county committees.
    Response: When Tribal lands cross state boundaries, members of the 
Tribe may choose to all participate at a single county office, and 
therefore vote in a single LAA to have unified decision making and 
implementation for their land.
    Comment: The final rule should reflect that the political activity 
of county office employees must comply with the Hatch Act.
    Response: That is an appropriate topic for handbooks and 
directives, and has therefore been addressed there, rather than in the 
rule.

Other Comments

    Some of the comments received expressed general support or 
opposition for the rule or the 2002 Farm Bill provisions, without 
offering specific suggestions for changes. FSA also received comments 
that are outside the scope of this rule but have been addressed 
elsewhere. The topics of the out of scope comments included financial 
support for outreach and updates to employee handbooks.

Executive Order 12866 and 13563

    Executive Order 12866, ``Regulatory Planning and Review,'' and 
Executive Order 13563, ``Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review,'' 
direct agencies to assess all costs and benefits of available 
regulatory alternatives and, if regulation is necessary, to select 
regulatory approaches that maximize net benefits (including potential 
economic, environmental, public health and safety effects, distributive 
impacts, and equity). Executive Order 13563 emphasized the importance 
of quantifying both costs and benefits, of reducing costs, of 
harmonizing rules, and of promoting flexibility.
    The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) designated this rule as 
not significant under Executive Order 12866 and therefore, OMB has not 
reviewed this interim rule.

Clarity of the Regulations

    Executive Order 12866, as supplemented by Executive Order 13563, 
requires each agency to write all rules in plain language. In addition 
to your substantive comments on this rule, we invite your comments on 
how to make it easier to understand. For example:
     Are the requirements in the rule clearly stated? Are the 
scope and intent of the rule clear?
     Does the rule contain technical language or jargon that is 
not clear?
     Is the material logically organized?
     Would changing the grouping or order of sections or adding 
headings make the rule easier to understand?
     Could we improve clarity by adding tables, lists, or 
diagrams?
     Would more, but shorter, sections be better? Are there 
specific sections that are too long or confusing?
     What else could we do to make the rule easier to 
understand?

Regulatory Flexibility

    The Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C. 601-612), as amended by 
the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 
(SBREFA), generally requires an agency to prepare a regulatory 
flexibility analysis of any

[[Page 33070]]

rule subject to the notice and comment rulemaking requirements under 
the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C. 553) or any other statute, 
unless the agency certifies that the rule will not have a significant 
economic impact on a substantial number of small entities. FSA has 
determined that this rule will not have a significant impact on a 
substantial number of small entities for the reasons explained below. 
Therefore, FSA has not prepared a regulatory flexibility analysis.
    The costs to comply with this rule are primarily borne by FSA, not 
the public. The costs of compliance with this rule for the public are 
expected to be minimal. No comments were received on the proposed rule 
regarding disparate economic impact on small entities. Therefore, FSA 
certifies that this rule will not have a significant economic impact on 
a substantial number of small entities.

Environmental Review

    The environmental impacts of this rule have been considered in a 
manner consistent with the provisions of the National Environmental 
Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4321-4347, the regulations of the 
Council on Environmental Quality (40 CFR parts 1500-1508), and the FSA 
regulations for compliance with NEPA (7 CFR part 799). The following 
interim rule was determined to be Categorically Excluded. Therefore, no 
environmental assessment or environmental impact statement will be 
completed for this final rule.

Executive Order 12372

    Executive Order 12372, ``Intergovernmental Review of Federal 
Programs,'' requires consultation with State, and local officials. The 
objectives of the Executive Order are to foster an intergovernmental 
partnership and a strengthened Federalism, by relying on State, and 
local processes for State, and local government coordination and review 
of proposed Federal Financial assistance and direct Federal 
development. For reasons set forth in the Notice to 7 CFR part 3015, 
subpart V (48 FR 29115, June 24, 1983), the programs and activities 
within this rule are excluded from the scope of Executive Order 12372.

Executive Order 12988

    This rule has been reviewed in accordance with Executive Order 
12988, ``Civil Justice Reform.'' This interim rule is not retroactive 
and it does not preempt State, or local laws, regulations, or policies 
unless they present an irreconcilable conflict with this rule. Before 
any judicial action may be brought regarding the provisions of this 
rule the administrative appeal provisions of 7 CFR parts 11 and 780 
must be exhausted.

Executive Order 13132

    This rule has been reviewed under Executive Order 13132, 
``Federalism.'' The policies contained in this rule do not have any 
substantial direct effect on States, the relationship between the 
Federal government and the States, or the distribution of power and 
responsibilities among the various levels of government. Nor does this 
interim rule impose substantial direct compliance costs on State, and 
local governments. Therefore, consultation with the States is not 
required.

Executive Order 13175

    This rule has been reviewed for compliance with Executive Order 
13175, ``Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal 
Governments.'' Executive Order 13175 imposes requirements on the 
development of regulatory policies that have Tribal implications or 
preempt Tribal laws. The policies contained in this rule do not preempt 
Tribal law.
    FSA has been working closely with the USDA Office of Tribal 
Relations to ensure that the rule meets the concerns of Tribal leaders 
and to develop a plan to improve the rule implementation with FSA 
staff. USDA will also respond in a timely and meaningful manner to all 
Tribal government requests for consultation concerning this rule and 
will provide additional venues, such as webinars and teleconferences, 
to periodically host collaborative conversations with Tribal leaders 
and their representatives concerning ways to improve this rule in 
Indian country.

Unfunded Mandates Reform Act

    Title II of the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act of 1995 (UMRA, Pub. L. 
104-4) requires Federal agencies to assess the effects of their 
regulatory actions on State, local, or Tribal governments or the 
private sector. Agencies generally must prepare a written statement, 
including a cost benefit analysis, for proposed and final rules with 
Federal mandates that may result in expenditures of $100 million or 
more in any 1 year for State, local, or Tribal governments, in the 
aggregate, or to the private sector. UMRA generally requires agencies 
to consider alternatives and adopt the more cost effective or least 
burdensome alternative that achieves the objectives of the rule. This 
interim rule contains no Federal mandates under the regulatory 
provisions of Title II of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 
(UMRA) for State, local, or Tribal governments, or the private sector. 
Therefore, this rule is not subject to the requirements of sections 202 
and 205 of UMRA.

Paperwork Reduction Act

    Currently approved information collection activities are covered 
under OMB control number 0560-0229. This rule involves no change to the 
currently approved collection of information.

E-Government Act Compliance

    FSA is committed to complying with the E-Government Act, to promote 
the use of the Internet and other information technologies to provide 
increased opportunities for citizen access to Government information 
and services, and for other purposes.

List of Subjects for 7 CFR Part 7

    Agriculture.

    For the reasons discussed above, 7 CFR part 7 is revised to read as 
follows:

PART 7--SELECTION AND FUNCTIONS OF FARM SERVICE AGENCY STATE AND 
COUNTY COMMITTEES

Sec.
7.1 Administration.
7.2 General.
7.3 Definitions.
7.4 Selection of committee members.
7.5 Eligible voters.
7.6 Establishment of local administrative areas.
7.7 Calling of elections.
7.8 Nominations for county committee.
7.9 Slate of candidates.
7.10 Conduct of county committee elections.
7.11 Election of county committee members.
7.12 Composition of a county committee.
7.13 Tie votes.
7.14 Vacancies.
7.15 Challenges and appeals.
7.16 Report of election.
7.17 Remedial measures.
7.18 Eligibility requirements of county committee members.
7.19 Eligibility requirements of all other personnel.
7.20 Prohibition on dual office.
7.21 Terms of office of county committee members.
7.22 State committee duties.
7.23 County committee duties.
7.24 Chairperson of the county committee duties.
7.25 County executive director duties.
7.26 Private business activity and conflicts of interest.
7.27 Political activity.
7.28 Removal from office or employment for cause.
7.29 Delegation of authority to Deputy Administrator.

[[Page 33071]]

7.30 Custody and use of books, records, and documents.
7.31 Administrative operations.
7.34 Retention of authority.

    Authority: 7 U.S.C. 2279-1, 16 U.S.C. 590d and 590h.


Sec.  7.1  Administration.

    (a) The regulations in this part apply to the election and 
functions of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) county committees and the 
functions of FSA State committees (``county committees'' and ``State 
committees,'' respectively). State and county committees will be under 
the general supervision of the FSA Administrator.
    (b) State and county committees, and representatives and employees 
of those committees, do not have authority to modify or waive any of 
the provisions of this part.
    (c) State committees will take any actions required by these 
regulations that have not been taken by a county committee. State 
committees will also:
    (1) Correct, or require a county committee to correct, any action 
taken by such county committee that is not in accordance with this 
part, or
    (2) Require a county committee to withhold taking any action that 
is not in accordance with this part.
    (d) No provision or delegation to a State or county committee will 
preclude the FSA Administrator, or designee, from determining any 
question arising under this part, or from reversing or modifying any 
determination made by a State or county committee.
    (e) These regulations will be administered in accordance with the 
Uniform Guidelines for Conducting FSA County Committee Elections.
    (f) Unless specifically provided in this part, the Deputy 
Administrator, Field Operations, FSA (Deputy Administrator), is 
authorized to issue the official instructions and procedures referred 
to in this part to implement the provisions of this part.
    (g) This part applies to the United States, its territories, and 
Puerto Rico.


Sec.  7.2  General.

    State and county committees will, as directed by the Secretary, or 
a designee of the Secretary, carry out the programs and functions of 
the Secretary.


Sec.  7.3  Definitions.

    The following definitions apply to this part. The definitions in 
Sec.  718.2 of this title also apply to this part, except where they 
conflict with the definitions in this section.
    Cooperate means to enroll a farming operation or agricultural 
property with a county office.
    Deputy Administrator means Deputy Administrator for Field 
Operations, Farm Service Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture or the 
designee.
    Local administrative area means an elective area for FSA committees 
in a single county or multi-county jurisdiction.
    Participate means to receive assistance, services, or benefits 
directly from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), or 
from USDA indirectly through another governmental agency.
    Socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher is an individual or entity 
who is a member of a group whose members have been subject to racial, 
ethnic, or gender prejudice because of their identity as members of a 
group without regard to their individual qualities. These groups 
consist of: American Indians or Alaskan Natives, Asians, Blacks or 
African Americans, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, 
Hispanics, and women.
    State committee means the FSA State committee.
    Uniform Guidelines means the Uniform Guidelines for Conducting Farm 
Service Agency County Committee Elections, which are available in FSA 
Handbook 15-AO.


Sec.  7.4  Selection of committee members.

    (a) State committee members will be selected by the Secretary and 
will serve at the pleasure of the Secretary.
    (b) County committee members will be elected as specified in Sec.  
7.11 of this part or appointed as specified in Sec.  7.17 of this part.


Sec.  7.5  Eligible voters.

    (a) Persons must meet the requirements of paragraphs (b) or (c) of 
this section to be eligible to vote in direct elections of county 
committee members.
    (b) Farmers and ranchers who are of legal voting age in the State 
in which their farms or ranches are located, regardless of race, color, 
national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, 
sexual orientation, and marital or family status, and any farmers or 
ranchers not of legal voting age who are in charge of the supervision 
and conduct of the farming operations on an entire farm, are eligible 
to vote for direct election of county committee members, if they:
    (1) Participated in a program administered within a county, or area 
under the jurisdiction of the county committee, within 1 year of the 
date of the election; or
    (2) Not later than the final date to return ballots, cooperate as 
evidenced in county office records.
    (c) In any State having a community property law, the spouse of a 
person who is eligible to vote in accordance with paragraph (b) of this 
section is also eligible to vote.
    (d) If an eligible voter is a legal entity, the eligible voter's 
vote may be cast by a duly authorized representative of such entity, as 
determined by the Deputy Administrator, Field Operations, FSA.
    (e) Each county office will maintain a list of eligible voters for 
each local administrative area within the county. A county office must 
disclose a list containing the names of eligible voters to the public. 
A county office must disclose a list containing the names and addresses 
of eligible voters to a candidate for a county committee position at 
the request of the candidate.
    (f) Farmers and ranchers who are not on the list of eligible voters 
who believe that they meet eligibility requirements may file a written 
challenge with the county committee and may appeal county committee 
voting ineligibility determinations to the State committee.
    (g) Each eligible voter will be entitled to only one ballot in any 
election held in any one local administrative area. If the eligible 
voter has an interest in land located in more than one local 
administrative area in a single county, such voter will not be entitled 
to vote in more than one local administrative area in that county. 
There will be no voting by proxy.


Sec.  7.6  Establishment of local administrative areas.

    (a) The Secretary, or the Secretary's designee, may designate local 
administrative areas within a county or a larger area under the 
jurisdiction of a county committee.
    (1) There will be a minimum of three local administrative areas in 
each county. In counties that have been combined or consolidated into a 
multiple county office, there will be 3 to 11 local administrative 
areas. In single-county offices, there will be three to five local 
administrative areas. With respect to Alaska and Puerto Rico, the 
county will be the area so designated by the State committees. In 
Louisiana, the term ``county'' applies to parishes.
    (2) Each local administrative area will have not more than one 
elected county committee member.
    (3) The boundaries of the local administrative areas will be 
determined by the State committee after considering recommendations by 
the county committee in which the local administrative areas are 
located.
    (4) The county committee must give public notice of the local 
administrative

[[Page 33072]]

area boundaries in advance of the election and nomination processes.
    (b) [Reserved]


Sec.  7.7  Calling of elections.

    (a) The Secretary will establish a county committee in each county 
or area under the jurisdiction of a multiple county office.
    (b) Each election of county committee members must be held on a 
date, or within a specified period of time, determined by the Deputy 
Administrator. Each such election must be held in accordance with 
instructions issued by the Deputy Administrator, and the instructions 
must be available for public examination in each county office.
    (c) If the number of eligible voters voting in any election of 
county committee members is so small that the State committee 
determines that the result of that election does not represent the 
views of a substantial number of eligible voters, the State committee 
may declare the election void and call a new election. If it is 
determined by the State committee that the election for any position on 
a county committee has not been held substantially in accordance with 
official instructions, the State committee will declare such election 
void and call a new election.


Sec.  7.8  Nominations for county committee.

    (a) Nominations to the county committee will be publicly solicited 
with a closing date for nominations not less than 90 days prior to the 
election date.
    (b) Each solicitation for nomination will include the 
nondiscrimination statement used by the Secretary.
    (c) To be eligible for nomination for election in a single county 
jurisdiction in the local administrative area conducting the election, 
a person must be a farmer or rancher residing within that local 
administrative area under the jurisdiction of the county committee. In 
a multiple county jurisdiction, or in the case where an local 
administrative area or county boundary runs through a farm, a person 
will only be eligible for nomination in the jurisdiction and local 
administrative area in which the person's records are administered.
    (d) To be eligible, nominees must be farmers or ranchers who:
    (1) Participated in a program administered within an area under the 
jurisdiction of the county committee; or
    (2) At the time of the deadline to submit nominations, cooperate as 
evidenced in county office records.
    (e) Nominations of eligible farmers and ranchers will be solicited 
and accepted from organizations representing the interests of socially 
disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
    (f) Eligible farmers and ranchers may nominate themselves or other 
farmers and ranchers who meet the nomination criteria in paragraph (d) 
of this section, and who certify their willingness to serve on the 
county committee.
    (g) If elected, nominees must meet all the eligibility requirements 
in Sec.  7.18 to serve as county committee members.


Sec.  7.9  Slate of candidates.

    (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, a slate of 
candidates will consist of one or more eligible farmers and ranchers 
nominated through public solicitation of nominees as specified in Sec.  
7.8.
    (b) If no nominations are received by the closing date for 
nominations, the county committee must develop a slate of candidates in 
accordance with the Uniform Guidelines.
    (c) A slate developed by the county committee must include at least 
one individual representing the interests of socially disadvantaged 
farmers and ranchers.
    (d) Candidates must certify their willingness to serve on the 
county committee if elected as a member or alternate.
    (e) The county committee must accept write-in candidates on 
ballots.
    (f) Write-in candidates, if elected as a member or an alternate, 
must meet the eligibility requirements of Sec.  7.18 and must certify 
their willingness to serve on the county committee before they will be 
certified as a member or alternate.


Sec.  7.10  Conduct of county committee elections.

    (a) The county committee serving at the time of the election will 
be responsible for the conduct of the county committee election in 
accordance with the Uniform Guidelines and with any instructions issued 
by the Deputy Administrator.
    (b) County committee elections must not be associated with, or held 
in conjunction with, any other election or referendum conducted for any 
other purpose.
    (c) The county committee must give advance public notice at least 
30 calendar days prior to the election date of how, when, and where 
eligible voters may vote.
    (d) The county committee must provide at least 10 calendar days of 
public notice of the date, time, and place at which election ballots 
will be opened and counted.
    (e) The county committee must provide at least 10 calendar days of 
public notice that any person may observe the opening and counting of 
the election ballots.
    (f) The county executive director must notify all nominees of the 
outcome of the election within 5 calendar days of the election date. 
The notification must be in writing.


Sec.  7.11  Election of county committee members.

    (a) Where there are three local administrative areas as specified 
in Sec.  7.6, there will be an election of a county committee member 
and, if available, any alternates, for a term of not more than 3 years, 
or until such person's successor is elected and qualified, in only one 
of the local administrative areas so that the term of office of one 
county committee member and any alternates within one of the local 
administrative areas will expire each year.
    (b) Where there are more than three local administrative areas as 
specified in Sec.  7.6, there will be an election in at least one of 
the local administrative areas each year, such that the term of office 
of the county committee member(s) and any alternates within at least 
one-third of the local administrative areas will expire each year.
    (c) Every 3 years, the eligible voters in a local administrative 
area will elect a county committee member and may elect first and 
second alternates, as available, to serve. The alternates will serve, 
in the order of the number of votes received, as acting members of the 
county committee, in case of the temporary absence of a member, or to 
become a member of the county committee in that same order elected in 
case of the resignation, disqualification, removal, or death of a 
member. In other words, the candidate receiving the most votes will be 
elected as the committee member, and the candidates receiving the 
second and third most votes, if there are multiple candidates, will be 
elected as first and second alternates, respectively.
    (d) An alternate serving as an acting member of the county 
committee will have the same duties, responsibilities, and authority as 
a regular member of such committee. In the event an alternate fills a 
permanent vacancy on the county committee, such person will assume the 
remainder of the unexpired term of the county committee member who was 
replaced.
    (e) The election must be conducted in all counties by mail or other 
distribution of ballots in accordance with the Uniform Guidelines, 
except that the Deputy Administrator may authorize use of the meeting 
or polling place

[[Page 33073]]

method in any county where such exception is deemed justified.
    (f) Elections will be by secret ballot with each eligible voter 
allowed to cast one vote and having the option of writing in the name 
of a candidate.
    (g) Failure to elect alternates at the regular election will not 
invalidate such election or require a special election to elect 
alternates.


Sec.  7.12  Composition of a county committee.

    (a) A committee established under this part will consist of not 
fewer than 3 nor more than 11 elected members.
    (b) Committee members must be fairly representative of the farmers 
and ranchers within their respective LAA from which they are elected.
    (c) The county committee must select a secretary who must be the 
county executive director or other employee of the county committee. 
The secretary cannot be a county committee member.
    (d) The county committee must select a chairperson and vice-
chairperson.


Sec.  7.13  Tie votes.

    Tie votes in county committee elections will be settled by lot in a 
manner that is open to the public.


Sec.  7.14  Vacancies.

    (a) In case of a vacancy in the office of chairperson of a county 
committee, the respective vice chairperson will become chairperson. In 
case of a vacancy in the office of vice chairperson of a three member 
committee, the respective third member will become vice chairperson. In 
case of a vacancy in the office of a member, a respective first 
alternate, if available, will become a member. In case of a vacancy in 
the office of vice chairperson of a four to five member county 
committee, the first alternate, if available, for the LAA of the vice 
chairperson will become a member and the county committee will conduct 
an organizational meeting to select a vice chairperson; and in case of 
a vacancy in the office of the first alternate, a respective second 
alternate, if available, will become the first alternate. When 
unanimously recommended by the members of the county committee, as 
constituted under this paragraph, and approved by the State committee, 
the offices of chairperson and vice chairperson of the county committee 
may be filled by any county committee member without regard to the 
order of succession specified in this paragraph.
    (b) In the event that a vacancy, other than one caused by temporary 
absence, occurs in the membership of the county committee and no 
alternate is available to fill the vacancy, a special election may be 
held to fill such vacancies as exist in the membership.
    (c) In the event that a vacancy, other than one caused by temporary 
absence, occurs in the membership of the county committee and no 
alternate is available to fill the vacancy, the State committee may 
designate a person to serve out the balance of the term of the vacant 
position on the county committee.


Sec.  7.15  Challenges and appeals.

    (a) Challenges and appeals by nominees regarding voter eligibility 
or the results of a county committee election must be handled in 
accordance with the Uniform Guidelines.
    (b) Any nominee has the right to challenge an election in writing, 
in person, or both within 15 calendar days after the results of the 
election are posted.
    (c) Challenges to the election must be made to the county 
committee, which will provide a decision on the challenge to the 
appellant within 7 calendar days of the receipt of the challenge.
    (d) The county committee's decision may be appealed to the State 
Committee within 15 calendar days of receipt of the notice of the 
decision if the appellant desires.
    (e) In the event that an election is nullified as a result of a 
challenge or appeal, or an error in the election process, a special 
election must be conducted by the county office and closely monitored 
by the FSA State office.


Sec.  7.16  Report of election.

    (a) The county committee must file an election report with the 
Secretary through the Deputy Administrator's office not later than 20 
days after the date an election is held.
    (b) The election report must include:
    (1) The number of eligible voters in the local administrative area;
    (2) The number of ballots cast in the election by eligible voters;
    (3) The percentage of eligible voters that cast ballots;
    (4) The number of ballots disqualified in the election;
    (5) The percentage of ballots disqualified;
    (6) The number of nominees for each seat up for election;
    (7) The race, ethnicity, and gender of each nominee, as provided by 
the voluntary self identification of each nominee; and
    (8) The final election results, including the number of ballots 
received by each nominee.


Sec.  7.17  Remedial measures.

    (a) FSA will consider additional efforts to achieve the objective 
that county committees are fairly representative of farmers and 
ranchers within areas covered by the committees. Such efforts may 
include, but are not limited to, compliance reviews of selected 
counties, further centralization of the election process, and the 
appointment of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers to 
particular committees in accordance with a notice published in the 
Federal Register issued by the Secretary authorizing such appointments.
    (b) The Secretary may ensure inclusion of socially disadvantaged 
farmers and ranchers by appointment of 1 additional voting member to a 
county committee when a significant population of socially 
disadvantaged farmers and ranchers exist in the committee jurisdiction 
and no member is elected from that socially disadvantaged population. 
The appointment of the socially disadvantaged voting member will be in 
accordance with standards and qualifications furnished by the State 
committee.


Sec.  7.18  Eligibility requirements of county committee members.

    (a) To be eligible to hold office as a county committee member or 
an alternate to any county office, a person must meet the conditions 
specified in this section.
    (b) Such person must:
    (1) Meet the eligibility for nomination criteria specified in Sec.  
7.8;
    (2) Reside in the local administrative area in which the election 
is held, in cases where a State line, a county line, or a local 
administrative area boundary runs through a farm, eligible farmers and 
ranchers residing on such farm may hold office in the county and local 
administrative area in which the farm has been determined to be located 
for program participation purposes;
    (3) Not be ineligible based on prohibited political activities, as 
specified in the Uniform Guidelines;
    (4) Not have been dishonorably discharged from any branch of the 
armed services; removed for cause from any public office; convicted of 
any fraud, larceny, embezzlement, or felony, unless any such 
disqualification is waived by the State committee or the Deputy 
Administrator;
    (5) Not have been removed as a county committee member, alternate 
to any county office, or as an employee for: Failure to perform the 
duties of the office; committing, attempting, or conspiring to commit 
fraud; incompetence; impeding the effectiveness of any program 
administered in the county; refusal to

[[Page 33074]]

carry out or failure to comply with the Department's policy relating to 
equal opportunity and civil rights, including the equal employment 
policy, or interfering with others in carrying out such policy; or for 
violation of official instructions, unless any such disqualification is 
waived by the State committee or the Deputy Administrator;
    (6) Not have been disqualified for future service because of a 
determination by a State committee that during previous service as a 
county committee member, alternate to any county office, or as an 
employee of the county committee, the person has: Failed to perform the 
duties of such office or employment; committed, attempted, or conspired 
to commit fraud; impeded the effectiveness of any program administered 
in the county; in the course of their official duties, refused to carry 
out or failed to comply with the Department's policy relating to equal 
opportunity and civil rights, including the equal employment policy, or 
interfered with others in carrying out such policy; or violated 
official instructions, unless any such disqualification is waived by 
the State committee or the Deputy Administrator;
    (7) Not be an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during 
the term of office;
    (8) Not be a sales agent or employee of the Risk Management Agency 
or their affiliates during the term of office;
    (9) Not be already serving as a county committee member with 1 or 
more years remaining in their current term of office; and
    (10) Not have served more than 9 consecutive years (three 
consecutive terms as an elected member) as an elected or appointed 
county committee member just prior to the current election in which 
elected office is sought. After a break in service of at least 1 year, 
a member who has previously served 9 consecutive years may run for re-
election or be re-appointed.


Sec.  7.19  Eligibility requirements of all other personnel.

    (a) The county executive director and other employees of the county 
committee must not have been: Dishonorably discharged from any branch 
of the armed services; removed for cause from any public office; or 
convicted of any fraud, larceny, embezzlement, or any other felony, 
unless any such disqualification is waived by the State committee or 
the Deputy Administrator.
    (b) The county executive director or any other employee of the 
county committee must not have been removed as a county committee 
member, alternate to any county office, county executive director, or 
other employee of the county committee for: Failure to perform the 
duties of the office; committing, attempting, or conspiring to commit 
fraud; incompetence; impeding the effectiveness of any program 
administered in the county; refusal to carry out or failure to comply 
with the Department's policy relating to equal opportunity and civil 
rights, including equal employment policy, or interfering with others 
in carrying out such policy; or for violation of official instructions, 
unless such disqualification is waived by the State committee or the 
Deputy Administrator.
    (c) The county executive director or any other employee of the 
county committee must not have been disqualified for future employment 
because of a determination by a State committee that during previous 
service as a county committee member, alternate to any county office, 
or as an employee of the county committee, the person has: Failed to 
perform the duties of such office or employment; committed, attempted, 
or conspired to commit fraud; impeded the effectiveness of any program 
administered in the county; refused to carry out or failed to comply 
with the Department's policy relating to equal opportunity and civil 
rights, including the equal employment policy, or interfered with 
others in carrying out such policy; or violated official instructions, 
unless such disqualification is waived by the State committee or the 
Deputy Administrator.


Sec.  7.20  Prohibition on dual office.

    (a) A member of the county committee cannot, during the time they 
are a committee member, also serve as:
    (1) The secretary to the county committee;
    (2) A member of the State committee; or
    (3) A county executive director or any other county office 
employee.
    (b) [Reserved]


Sec.  7.21  Terms of office of county committee members.

    (a) The term of office of county committee members and alternates 
to such office will begin on a date fixed by the Deputy Administrator, 
which will be after their election or appointment.
    (b) Before any county committee member or alternate to the county 
committee may take office as a county committee member, such person 
must sign an oath of office to pledge that they will faithfully, 
fairly, and honestly perform to the best of their ability all of the 
duties devolving on them as committee members.
    (c) A term of office will continue until a successor is elected and 
qualified as specified in Sec. Sec.  7.8 and 7.9 or appointed as 
specified in Sec.  7.17.


Sec.  7.22  State committee duties.

    The State committee, subject to the general direction and 
supervision of the Deputy Administrator, will be generally responsible 
for carrying out all Farm Programs in the State or any other functions 
assigned by the Secretary or a designee of the Secretary.


Sec.  7.23  County committee duties.

    (a) The county committee, subject to the general direction and 
supervision of the State committee, will be generally responsible for 
carrying out in the county Farm Programs and any other program or 
function assigned by the Secretary or a designee of the Secretary.
    (b) The county committee will:
    (1) Employ the county executive director, subject to standards and 
qualifications furnished by the State committee, except that incumbent 
directors must not be removed except as specified in Sec.  7.28. There 
must be no employment discrimination due to race, color, national 
origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual 
orientation, or marital or family status. The county executive director 
may not be removed for advocating or carrying out the Department's 
policy on equal opportunity and civil rights, including the equal 
employment policy. In the event it is claimed that dismissal is for 
such reasons, the dismissal will not become effective until the State 
committee and the Deputy Administrator have determined that dismissal 
was not because of such reasons;
    (2) Direct outreach activities to reach and inform socially 
disadvantaged farmers and ranchers of all programs and county committee 
election processes;
    (3) Follow official instructions to review, approve, and certify 
forms, reports, and documents requiring such action;
    (4) Recommend to the State committee needed changes in boundaries 
of local administrative areas;
    (5) Make available to farmers, ranchers, and the public information 
concerning the objectives and operations of the programs administered 
through the county committee;
    (6) Make available to agencies of the Federal Government and others 
information with respect to the county committee activities in 
accordance with official instructions issued;

[[Page 33075]]

    (7) Give public notice of the designation and boundaries of each 
local administrative area within the county prior to the election of 
county committee members;
    (8) Direct the giving of notices in accordance with applicable 
regulations and official instructions;
    (9) Recommend to the State committee desirable changes in or 
additions to existing programs;
    (10) Conduct such hearings and investigations as the State 
committee may request; and
    (11) Perform such other duties as may be prescribed by the State 
committee.


Sec.  7.24  Chairperson of the county committee duties.

    The chairperson of the county committee or the person acting as the 
chairperson will preside at meetings of the county committee, certify 
such documents as may require the chairperson's certification, and 
perform such other duties as may be prescribed by the State committee.


Sec.  7.25  County executive director duties.

    (a) The county executive director will execute the policies 
established by the county committee and be responsible for the day-to-
day operations of the county office.
    (b) The county executive director will:
    (1) In accordance with standards and qualifications furnished by 
the State committee, employ the personnel of the county office. There 
must be no employment discrimination due to race, color, national 
origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual 
orientation, and marital or family status. An employee may not be 
removed under this paragraph for advocating or carrying out the 
Department's policy on equal opportunity and civil rights, including 
the equal employment policy. In the event it is claimed that the 
dismissal is for such reason, the dismissal will not become effective 
until the State committee and the Deputy Administrator have determined 
that dismissal was not because of such reason;
    (2) Receive, dispose of, and account for all funds, negotiable 
instruments, or property coming into the custody of the county 
committee.


Sec.  7.26  Private business activity and conflicts of interest.

    (a) No county committee member, alternate to any such office, or 
county office employee, may at any time use such office or employment 
to promote any private business interest.
    (b) County committee members, alternates, and any person employed 
in the county office will be subject to the official instructions 
issued with respect to conflicts of interest and proper conduct.


Sec.  7.27  Political activity.

    Permitted and prohibited political activities, with respect to any 
State committee member, county committee member, county executive 
director, or any other county employee, will be determined in 
accordance with applicable policies specified in FSA handbooks and 
directives.


Sec.  7.28  Removal from office or employment for cause.

    (a) Adverse personnel actions involving any county committee member 
or alternate member, county executive director, or other county office 
employee will be taken for failing to perform the duties of their 
office, impeding the effectiveness of any program administered in the 
county, violating official instructions, or for misconduct.
    (b) Any person whom FSA proposes to suspend or remove from office 
or employment must be given advance written notice of the reason for 
such action and must be advised of the right to reply to such a 
proposal and any right of further review and appeal if the person is 
removed or suspended.


Sec.  7.29  Delegation of authority to Deputy Administrator.

    (a) Notwithstanding the authority vested by this part to a State 
committee, a county committee, and the county executive director, the 
Deputy Administrator has the authority to take adverse personnel 
actions involving any county committee member or alternate member, 
county executive director, or other county office employee for failing 
to perform the duties of their office or for misconduct.
    (b) Any person whom FSA proposes to suspend or remove from office 
or employment must be given advance written notice of the reason for 
such action and must be advised of the right to reply to such a 
proposal and any right of further review and appeal if the person is 
removed or suspended.


Sec.  7.30  Custody and use of books, records, and documents.

    (a) All books, records, and documents of or used by the county 
committee in the administration of programs assigned to it, or in the 
conduct of elections, will be the property of FSA or the United States 
Department of Agriculture, as applicable, and must be maintained in 
good order in the county office.
    (b) Voted ballots must be placed into and remain in sealed 
containers, such containers not being opened until the prescribed date 
and time for counting. Following the counting of ballots, the ballots 
must be placed in sealed containers and retained for 1 year unless 
otherwise determined by the Deputy Administrator.
    (c) The books, records, and documents referred to in paragraph (a) 
of this section must be available for use and examination:
    (1) At all times by authorized representatives of the Secretary, 
the Administrator, or a designee of the Administrator.
    (2) By State and county committee members, and authorized employees 
of the State and county office in the performance of duties assigned to 
them under this part, subject to instructions issued by the Deputy 
Administrator;
    (3) At any reasonable time to any program participant insofar as 
such person's interests under the programs administered by the county 
committee may be affected, subject to instructions issued by the Deputy 
Administrator; and
    (4) To any other person only in accordance with instructions issued 
by the Deputy Administrator.


Sec.  7.31  Administrative operations.

    The administrative operations of county committees including, but 
not limited to, the following, must be conducted, except as otherwise 
provided in this part, in accordance with official instructions issued: 
Annual, sick, and other types of employee leave; the calling and 
conduct of elections; and the maintenance of records of county 
committee meetings.


Sec.  7.34  Retention of authority.

    (a) Nothing in this part will preclude the Secretary, the 
Administrator, or the Deputy Administrator from administering any or 
all programs, or exercising other functions delegated to the county 
committee, State committee, or any employee of such committees.
    (b) In exercising this authority, the Secretary, the Administrator, 
or the Deputy Administrator may designate for such period of time as 
deemed necessary a person or persons of their choice to be in charge 
with full authority to carry out the programs or other functions 
without regard to the normal duties of such committees or employees.

    Signed on April 25, 2012.
Thomas J. Vilsack,
Secretary of Agriculture.
[FR Doc. 2012-13358 Filed 6-4-12; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3410-05-P