Benton doesn't appear to meet minimum requirements for county job

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Don Benton’s history of public service and his work in the private sector do not appear to match up with the minimum qualifications to be Clark County’s next director of environmental services, a job bestowed on him Wednesday by County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke.

Voters elected Benton to the state House in 1994. In 1996, he won a seat in the state Senate.

In 1998, he ran for Congress and lost. In 2000, he was re-elected to the state Senate.

In 2002, Benton ran for county assessor and lost.

Last year, he won his latest re-election bid to the state Senate by 74 votes over Democrat Tim Probst.

Benton, 57, has a bachelor’s degree in management and communications from Concordia University. Outside of politics, he worked in management for Farmers Insurance Group before starting a sales and marketing consulting company.

Madore and Mielke insisted Wednesday that they wouldn’t be able to find a better person for the job than Benton, but the senator doesn’t appear to meet the minimum job requirements, according to the description on the county’s website. Commissioner Steve Stuart, the lone voice of dissent Wednesday, told his fellow commissioners that giving the job to Benton without going through normal hiring protocol does a disservice to Benton because it sends a message to the public that Benton wouldn’t survive a typical hiring process.

According to the county’s human resources manual, recruitment and selection for jobs “shall be conducted in an affirmative manner to provide equal employment opportunity” and “maximize reliability, objectivity and validity through a job-related assessment of applicant attributes necessary for successful job performance.”

However, the county provides a few exceptions to the requirement that job positions be publicly advertised, and says elected officials have the discretion to appoint department heads.

The vacancy was not posted after Kevin Gray’s departure this year, but the county maintains a searchable online list of descriptions for all county job titles.

At minimum, the director of environmental services should have experience directing “complex environmental services functions.”

In a March 17 email to Clark County Administrator Bill Barron, Madore proposed a new job description, one that was never formally adopted.

Madore wrote to Barron that he didn’t want to hire another “environmental bureaucrat.” In Madore’s proposed job description, knowledge of environmental services wasn’t even mentioned as a requirement.

Instead, Madore said the person should have experience writing budgets, negotiating salaries and be an effective public speaker.

“These qualifications stand in sharp contrast to an environmental specialist that lacks the above qualifications,” Madore wrote. “The intent is to champion community success in compliance with government regulations rather than building an impractical job-killing bureaucracy.”

According to the county’s job description on the website, however, the director of environmental services should, at minimum, have a bachelor’s degree “and at least eight years of responsible management experience directing complex environmental services functions and services, or related operations.”

A master’s degree in public administration, environmental services or a related field is “highly desirable,” according to the description. An ideal candidate’s work history “would provide a thorough knowledge of environmental services and developing and improving funding mechanisms and sources.”

The pay ranges from $96,936 to $136,956, according to the county’s website.

Madore’s desire to kill a “job-killing bureaucracy” mimics what county commissioners have been saying for years, as officials have balked at following minimum state environmental standards.

Clark County has unsuccessfully fought rules about controlling polluted rainwater runoff, and those regulations fall under the jurisdiction of environmental services. In March, the county was dealt another blow when the Washington Supreme Court denied a request by the county and the Building Industry Association of Clark County to review a lower-court ruling.

In September, the Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by the state Pollution Control Hearings Board, which said a compromise developed between the county and the state Department of Ecology was not backed by science and was insufficient under federal and state clean water laws.

As a lawmaker, Benton has been rated poorly by Washington Conservation Voters. In the organization’s 2011-12 legislative scorecard, Benton was given a 30 out of a possible 100, equal to his lifetime score. He was rated as making “anti-environmental” votes on biomass energy, transportation and environmental protections

Apart from professional requirements, Mielke on Wednesday said Benton will be good in the job because he works well with others.

Benton’s record suggests otherwise.

In 2001, Benton was ousted as chairman of the Washington State Republican Party after only eight months for his questionable handling of finances and unilateral decision to rent an office building. When Benton was named party chairman, a Seattle writer began her column with this sentence: “Who is Don Benton and why are so many Republicans embarrassed to have him as the new state party chairman?”

Former Gov. Gary Locke once called Benton an “arrogant blowhard,” for which Locke later apologized. Benton has also been called “bombastic,” “combative,” and “highly partisan,” by other lawmakers. Benton describes himself as “passionate.”

In an April 26 email to Madore, Benton wrote that it had come to his attention that the position of director of environmental services was open.

“I welcome the opportunity to lead this crucial department in collaboration with multiple departments, the (Department of Ecology) and local job creators to enhance our natural and economic environment. I ask for the opportunity to streamline our environmental permits to help navigate Clark County out of our current jobs crisis while protecting our environment for future generations,” Benton wrote.

Benton did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com