Benton selection fuels anger among public

Most contacting county outraged state senator got job without hiring process

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 
photoClark County Commissioners Tom Mielke, from left, David Madore and Steve Stuart

How to contact county commissioners

To write: Board of Clark County Commissioners, Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., Vancouver, WA 98665

To call: 360-397-2232

Email: A form is at http://www.clark.wa.gov/bocc/emailform.asp, or you can email david.madore@clark.wa.gov, tom.mielke@clark.wa.gov and steve.stuart@clark.wa.gov.

To speak during public comments: The next meeting is 6 p.m. Tuesday in the sixth-floor hearing room at the Clark County Public Service Center. While commissioners meet in the evening on the first Tuesday of every month, on other Tuesdays they meet at 10 a.m. If there’s a fifth Tuesday in a month, they do not meet.

Wednesday evening, Vancouver resident Elizabeth Pfenning did something she'd never done in 28 years as a registered voter.

She contacted her county commissioners, writing in an email that she was "outraged" Republican commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore "would so blatantly disregard the hiring process" in naming state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as the county's director of environmental services.

"If there is urgency to the hiring for this position, then streamline the process for one time only," she wrote in part. "Interview candidates and let their qualifications stand for themselves. Don't rewrite the job description to tailor it to a person who is clearly unqualified for the position as defined. That exemplifies political cronyism, and our county deserves better than that."

Pfenning, a teacher/librarian at Hearthwood Elementary School, said Thursday she sent the email after complaining about the commissioners' decision to her 19-year-old son. Her son asked her what she was going to do, and she answered she didn't know what she could do.

"He said, 'If you're not going to do anything about it, you should shut up,'" she said Thursday. So she sent the email, one of more than four dozen messages sent to commissioners following Wednesday's announcement. "I think we do need to voice our opinions," Pfenning said.

Of 58 emails received by commissioners by Thursday afternoon, which were provided to The Columbian under the state's public records act, 51 emails were from people opposed to the hiring of Benton. Five emails were from people in favor of the move, and two people asking procedural questions. Another 14 people called the commissioners' office to register their disappointment in Mielke and Madore.

Axel Swanson, the county's senior policy analyst, said the Benton news prompted the biggest public response in the shortest amount of time than any other topic.

Among people who expressed disgust, several wrote to Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, to thank him for, as Carol Rose wrote, "walking out on the 'Kings' of Clark County!"

Stuart abruptly left Wednesday's meeting, making one of his final words an expletive.

"It always amazes me how the 'big government' haters always want to collect a government check and provide the same for their political friends," Rose wrote. "You stated your feelings perfectly, and I felt were quite constrained under the circumstances. I believe when elected officials make their own rules, they have crossed the dictatorship line," Rose wrote.

As director of environmental services, Benton will supervise 53 people.

The pay ranges from $96,936 to $136,956, according to the county's website. As a state senator, Benton makes $42,106 plus expenses and up to $90 a day per diem when on state business.

Under the county's job description, the director should have "at least eight years of responsible management experience directing complex environmental services functions and services, or related operations." Benton, who worked as an insurance manager before starting a sales and marketing consulting company, does not have experience in environmental, or environmental-related, services.

The department coordinates and implements environmental aspects of federal, state and local policies.

Services provided by the department include stormwater management, over which the county has been fighting a losing battle with the state for years, solid waste and recycling, critical areas and open space protection, forest management, endangered species protection, noxious weed control and environmental permitting for county projects.

While the county typically publicly advertises job openings, commissioners, or other elected county officials, do have discretion to bypass the regular process and appoint department heads.

But just because they can do something, some people wrote, doesn't mean they should.

"The county has a (human resources) department who should vet and determine suitable candidates," wrote Kyle Potter. "In the private sector, you can hire and fire as you wish; but with public funds, a due course must be followed. I urge you to rescind Mr. Benton's hiring at once."

As Ruud van der Salm wrote to Madore and Mielke, having the audacity to say Benton "is the most qualified without letting him go through the proper hiring process smacks of elitism."

In an email to Madore and Mielke, Mike Kjer wrote, "I have been on your side with the bridge … but this Benton thing is terrible. I am sure you could have picked a better fight!"

Among the handful of people who wrote in support of Benton was Ernest Lucier of Camas, who wrote that the department of environmental services "has been out of control with its aggressive attacks on people's property use."

A few people mentioned Madore and Mielke should be recalled. Under Washington law, elected officials can be subject to a recall if a petitioner can convince a Superior Court judge that the official has committed an act of malfeasance, then there has to be a successful petition effort to get the issue on a ballot.

Despite the overwhelmingly negative feedback, Mielke and Madore didn't express any regret Thursday about their decision.

Stuart said Thursday the responses he's heard so far are "near uniform outrage."

"I've had calls, texts and emails from Seattle and across the state on this," Stuart said.

Madore said he, too, is hearing negative feedback but blames "false information" for the blow-back.

"It's a false premise that he's not qualified and that we are violating some statute," Madore said. "We have the freedom to define this, and we are doing all that we can to serve our citizens."

Mielke said he has received positive response over the move, but added that he hadn't been to the office Thursday as he was traveling to Spokane.

"We've had people contact us from across the state," Mielke said. "People praising it from the east side and west side. I've gotten some phone calls on my cellphone and a lot of people see it as a positive thing."

Benton issued a press release announcing he was accepting the job.

Erik Hidle contributed to the story.