Clark County is not staving off suit

No response has met employee's tort claim; deadline near

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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It appears Clark County won't respond to a tort claim alleging discrimination in the hiring of state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as director of the environmental service department.

The next step will be a lawsuit, according to the attorney for an employee of that county department.

"We will file on Wednesday morning," said Greg Ferguson, who is representing county employee Anita Largent in her legal claims against her employer. "The county has given three or four different stories on why Benton was hired. Soon we are going to see if they pick one or just use them all and see what sticks."

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

A tort claim puts the county on notice that it should reach a settlement or expect a lawsuit following a 60-day period, which in this case expires Wednesday.

The tort claim states Largent is seeking damages of at least $300,000.

Largent, who is still a manager within the environmental services department, states in the claim that the appointment of Benton not only violated county policy, but also state law against discrimination and portions of the U.S. Civil Rights Acts of 1964.

Specifically, the claim alleges gender discrimination in the hiring because no qualified female candidates were considered.

The county could have attempted to settle the suit before the 60-day deadline. That could have potentially allowed the county to avoid a lawsuit and for commissioners and other staff members to avoid giving depositions.

But Ferguson says the county hasn't responded in any way to Largent's claim. And the county doesn't appear to be on course to file a response before the Wednesday deadline.

Commissioners' response

"If a suit is filed, we will evaluate the details and any potential response at that time," said Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, who serves as chairman of the board.

Stuart, the lone Democrat on the board, was the vocal dissenting commissioner in the appointment of Benton. He called the move a blatant act of cronyism and angrily left the May 1 meeting at which Republican Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke approved Benton's hire.

In the aftermath, those speaking at commissioners' public hearings responded overwhelmingly against Madore and Mielke for their actions.

After Largent's tort claim filing, Mielke stated he was surprised by the action: "This doesn't sound like the Anita that I recommended for the interim (role)."

Madore, who has stated he considers Benton a friend, went on a local television news program and likened putting Largent in charge of the department to "taking a person who's really good at changing spark plugs, and making her the head of the whole dealership."

Days before the tort claim, Madore released an apology on his Facebook page for breaking with the county's process in hiring Benton. He later deleted the post, saying it was at the request of county attorneys.

In a follow-up post explaining the deletion, Madore claimed he was being targeted for fighting corruption, that "corrupt local public officials play every trick in the book to defraud Clark County citizens of hundreds of millions of dollars." He asked readers of the post to stand with him as he works to "defend our community." Madore's post did not specify who was targeting him or who was part of the conspiracy.