Records for Benton's hire prompt lawsuit

Vancouver man says he's received no response to May 31 request for documents

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Public records lawsuit against county withdrawn

Vancouver man who filed suit may re-file later

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Ed Ruttledge's complaint against Clark County

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A Vancouver man is suing Clark County for allegedly stonewalling a public records request he says would shed light on why county commissioners hired Don Benton to head the Environmental Services Department.

Ed Ruttledge says he submitted his public records request to numerous county officials on May 31, and he's yet to hear so much as a peep in return. According to state public disclosure laws, agencies have five days to respond to a public records request by either handing over the requested documents, denying the request based on legal exemptions, or by giving the person an estimated wait time for fulfilling the request.

"The email request landed in the in-box of half a dozen county employees, including the county commissioners and a county lawyer, yet not a single one of them felt compelled to act on it," Ruttledge's attorney, Greg Ferguson, said in a news release. Ruttledge's suit also seeks up to $100 in fines for each day the county ignores his request, as well as attorney fees, according to court documents filed Tuesday.

Ruttledge asked for documents that would show any changes commissioners made to the county's human resources policy manual during the year leading up to May 8. He also asked for copies of board minutes or public notices that would have alerted residents to such policy changes.

"The records at issue here, had they been timely provided, could have revealed whether county commissioners initiated or perhaps even inked a back-room deal before Benton's candidacy for the (director) position was even announced," Ferguson said.

On May 1, Republican county Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke announced that they planned to hire Benton, a Republican state senator from Vancouver. Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart vehemently opposed tapping Benton as director of environmental services and alleged "political cronyism" was at play.

Those opposed to the Benton hire said his qualifications didn't match those in the job description on the county's website. At the time of the hire, Madore and Mielke said Benton was the person they wanted for the job, because he's a proven leader who recognizes the importance of economic growth. Bill Barron, then the county administrator, warned Madore and Mielke that appointing Benton to the post without considering other candidates would fly in the face of standard hiring procedures.

Months after hiring Benton, Madore created a Facebook post titled "Don Benton — the real story of a good man and my apology."

In the post, Madore stated that the hiring of Benton was accidental, and it occurred after he became flustered. Madore blamed Stuart's angry departure from the May 1 meeting for leaving him "feeling somewhat disoriented." He also blamed Barron for appointing Benton after assuming that's what Madore and Mielke wanted him to do. Madore later removed the Facebook post.

After making his public records request, Ruttledge said he reached out to the county a second time and still got no response. Ruttledge is a frequent commenter on The Columbian's website and has voiced his concerns at public meetings about the decision to hire Benton.

"I suppose I could have just given up," Ruttledge said Tuesday in a statement. "But then I've never believed that the search for truth is a spectator sport."

County officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"It's county policy that we don't comment on pending litigation," said Holley Gilbert, a spokeswoman for Clark County.

Additional suit

This is the second known lawsuit the county faces in relation to the Benton hire.

In October, Anita Largent, who served as the interim director of environmental services before Benton's appointment, filed a tort claim against Madore, Mielke and the county. Largent alleges that the hiring of Benton "violated nearly every written county policy promising equal employment opportunity, non-discrimination and fairness in hiring."

Her claim alleges gender discrimination in the hiring because no qualified female candidates were considered. She is seeking damages of at least $300,000.