County shocker: Benton tapped for top environmental job (with audio)

Commissioner Stuart storms out of meeting, alleges cronyism

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: May 1, 2013, 8:29 PM

 

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Editor's Note: The Columbian on Thursday released a 20-minute excerpt of audio from the "board time" discussion and a 2-minute clip of Commissioner Steve Stuart's response.

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, was tapped Wednesday to become Clark County’s director of environmental services in a surprise and controversial move by Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke.

The two Republican commissioners’ action came about despite the angry objection of Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart, who called the action “political cronyism.”

Madore and Mielke directed County Administrator Bill Barron to begin the hiring process for Benton, saying it was unlikely a better candidate could be found, and the need to hire quickly required bypassing the county’s typical hiring practices.

Barron said after the meeting he would call Benton to offer him the job.

Messages left for Benton requesting comment went unreturned as of The Columbian’s press time.

After chiding Madore and Mielke for circumventing the hiring process the county typically goes through, Stuart began to pack up his files and put on his suit coat.

“I can’t even believe you guys are discussing that,” Stuart said. “This is disgusting. It really is. I’m done for the day. I am so sick. You gotta honor the organization, you gotta actually honor the integrity of the organization and the process to find the right people for the job. If after that process you find that he is the right person, God bless. Then you choose him. And you choose him with pride. But to choose him without even going through a process is diminishing and demeaning to him. It’s demeaning to Don Benton because it smacks of political cronyism that you would appoint him without a process. It is saying that he couldn’t make it through the process on his own accord with his own merits.”

As Stuart left the room, Mielke told him, “you are way out of line.” Stuart snapped back: “You guys are out of line.”

And as Mielke attempted to explain how they would otherwise need three months to make a hire, Stuart told him, “No you need two votes. That’s all you need is two votes. You feel free. You do your thing.”

Mielke then said, “been there, done that.”

Stuart, who had left the room, shouted back, “bullshit!”

After Stuart’s departure, a very silent room of county staff stared at the table as Madore and Mielke further explained why the move was critical.

Except for a reporter from The Columbian and Madore’s executive assistant, there were no members of the public in attendance at the “board time” meeting, which is a time for commissioners to tentatively plan future policy discussion.

“I think the man is talented in his ability,” Mielke said of Benton. “You can’t take away his performance. Whether you agree with it or not. In the last four years, in the minority in Olympia, he has managed to bring together and control Olympia.”

Madore agreed, saying Benton was a person who could assist with the county’s efforts to become more friendly to job creators.

“We need to be able to make sure we have leadership that can champion it,” Madore said.

Madore said the reason for moving quickly on the hiring was to avoid missing a building season where the role would be critical to the county.

“I respect that process,” Madore said of the hiring process the commissioners were electing to skip over. “In this case, if we walk through a 90-day period, once we nail down what needs to be nailed down … we are over this building season.”

Madore continued, “Most problems are foreseeable, that’s a foreseeable one.”

In March, Madore recommended in an email to Barron that the county alter the job listing of environmental services director from focusing solely on environmentalism to one that “champions practical application of state law in granting development permits.”

Madore said he felt Benton met the criteria outlined in the new job description.

“I need someone who shares the vision of championing jobs,” Madore said after the meeting. “We are in a jobs crisis.”

Both Madore and Mielke said this was not an act of “cronyism” as Stuart had claimed, rather it was an opportunity to hire the right person for the job.

Before the end of the meeting, Barron cautioned the two remaining commissioners over the boldness of their move. And when asked to interview Benton for the position, Barron explained there was little point as the commissioners had clearly reached a decision.

“I can’t learn anything more than what you’ve already said about him, so there is no use in me interviewing him,” Barron said. “If you want him for the job, I will just start the process. It doesn’t look good for me to interview him. You are obliterating every process we’ve had for 14 years.”

After commissioners directed Barron to move on the hire, Barron gave them a final opinion.

“Just so you know,” Barron said. “My interpretation, this will devastate the organization … This is bypassing every human-resource process we have for hiring department heads.”

The hiring moved forward quickly after Benton sent Madore an email last Friday declaring his availability for the job.

The first public conversation of the email occurred at Wednesday’s meeting. But Madore said he had spoken to Benton and explained that he could only “draw one paycheck” depending on if he was working for the county or working as a state legislator.

Both Madore and Mielke said they believe Benton can effectively manage his time between the two roles.

If Benton takes the position, it won’t violate any rules within the Washington Legislature. As outlined in the state’s Constitution, Benton is considered a part-time citizen legislator who can seek other employment opportunities.

“The general rule is that legislators are free to take outside employment that is outside of the Legislature,” Mike O’Connell, attorney for the state’s Legislative Ethics Board, said. “We have several legislators who work for local government, county government, other state agencies, and they serve on school boards. They’re not expected to give up their private life.”

Barron said after the meeting that typically, the county would send out a job vacancy announcement in several trade publications targeting the western states.

He said it was likely for this position that a citizen group would have been involved in a hiring panel, along with other top level staffers.

Madore’s new job description was not officially adopted at the Wednesday meeting.

Historically, the department’s goal is to manage the county’s natural resources through programs focusing on water resource protection, recycling, environmental education and noxious weed control. The department also focuses on stormwater issues facing the county.

The position has been operationally vacant since Feb. 1 when the previous director, Kevin Gray, announced his resignation.

Gray said at the time he had an agreement in place that restricted him from discussing details of his departure, and while his final day was officially April 15, he had not returned to the county building since his February announcement. Gray was paid a salary of $118,092 annually.

After the meeting, Mielke said Stuart’s outburst “bothered” him. Madore declined to comment specifically about Stuart’s actions.

When contacted by phone, Stuart said he’d spoken his piece clearly at the meeting.

“I have nothing more to say,” Stuart said. “I do look forward to hearing what the people who I serve have to say.”

Reporter Stevie Mathieu contributed to this story.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov ; erik.hidle@columbian.com.