Washington state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, found himself in a tough spot during his first few days on the job as Clark County’s new director of environmental service.
Benton, who sent an email to County Commissioner David Madore in April saying he’d like to apply for the open job, was hired in a county board time meeting May 1 under the blessing of Madore and Commissioner Tom Mielke, both Republicans.
The hiring was controversial from the start. Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, furiously opposed the hiring and left the meeting under protest — shouting an expletive to describe the scenario.
In Benton’s first week, angry county residents packed into a commissioners’ meeting to air their grievances with Benton’s hiring.
And for weeks after, often as Benton sat in the room for commissioner hearings, residents continued to state that he was the wrong man for the job.
For the most part, Benton stayed out of the fray. He didn’t speak much to the media, he didn’t issue a release defending himself and he juggled his new county job while still heading up for votes in a special session of the state Legislature.
But Benton did make a promise to The Columbian on his first day of work: he’d sit down for an interview after 30 days on the job to talk county business.
Last week, Benton talked about how he views his role with the county, why he thinks he was hired and what his goals are for the future of the department.
Here is a trimmed transcript of Benton’s thoughts on the new job.
Madore and Mielke both said after the hire they wanted a "manager" in this position rather than an environmentalist. Why do you think they chose you?
Don Benton: Why do I think it's a good fit for me? Why did I accept the offer? I think the primary reason is I'm very good with people. I'm very good with bringing diverse opinions together. I've done that. I'm good at forging a reasonable compromise or a consensus position because that's what I've done in the Legislature. I'm good at managing, I've managed companies. (Benton later said the largest group he's managed was somewhere between 80 and 100 at a tech company. Environmental services has 62 employees.) I'm good at managing budgets, and I know how to maximize budgets because I've done that in my life. … I think I have a good track record as a good manager with people and with money.
Some have cast you in the light of not being an environmentalist. They say you've received poor scores from activist groups for your votes in the legislature, and that is indicative of how you feel on environmental issues. How do you respond to that criticism?
I heard one comment and she said, “Don Benton as a long record of anti-environmentalism.” And I thought, A, the woman doesn’t even know me, B, she’s speaking off talking points some activist group gave her and her comments — all the comments from the public — are based on my political representation of the citizens of my district. Not on who I am, right? They’re based on my voting record in the Legislature.
I learned how to conserve water when I was just a boy because I grew up on a farm that didn’t have a well. We bought water by the truckload. … I learned from the time I was old enough to stand up to the sink that you turn the water on, you get your hands wet, you turn the water off. Soap them up, wash them up, turn the water back on to rinse. You don’t let the water run. It’s a precious resource. So am I an environmentalist? I think I am. Because I have always believed water is a precious resource you cannot waste. … That’s just one small thing. … We’ve been a recycling family for years and years and years. I grew up on a farm, so I’m very careful about the trees. … I’m very much a steward of the land. I’ve planted over 100 trees on my property. … (An anti-environmentalist is) just not who I am. Do I think there needs to be a reasonable nexus between environmental regulation and jobs? Absolutely. Does that make me an anti-environmentalist? I don’t think so.
What direction do you believe you've been given by commissioners for this role?
For sure, we’re going to avoid any lawsuits. Now, anybody can sue you for anything at any time, you can’t control that. But what you can control is whether or not they have a legitimate claim. And my job will be to absolutely be sure that we’re in compliance with all federal and state laws as they relate to the environment. I’ve written laws, so I understand them and I know how to follow them. And I will make sure our department follows the law.
How does your role as a state senator work with your role with the county?
This is a huge bonus to the citizens of this county. But it’s also a huge bonus to the citizens of the 17th Legislative District. Because I am now getting a much better, more defined education in terms of how these laws we pass are being applied at the ground level. … So when I look at a law or regulation and I think “how is that actually going to play out for the guy on the street who is actually going to do it?” And now I will be able to apply that same logic and expertise to regulations that affect municipalities. … It makes me a better legislator by having that understanding. It means I can better represent my constituents. … It also helps the county because the county has an ally on some of the efforts they want to move forward.
What is your goal for this department under your lead?
I think, number one, what I hope to have to show for it, is we’re doing a much better job complying with the law. We’re doing a much better job protecting our environment. And we’re doing it more efficiently and for less money. That’s what I hope to show for it.