After facing more heat Tuesday morning, Clark County commissioners relented on their notion to move public testimony to the end of their meetings.
But first the commissioners heard some three hours’ worth of that testimony, most of it critical, again at their regular weekly meeting.
At the end, Commissioner David Madore told the people they have been heard.
“First of all, I apologize for moving the public comment to the end of the meeting last week,” Madore said.
Madore and fellow Republican Commissioner Tom Mielke voted to move the comment period to the end of their May 7 meeting, which resulted in members of the public waiting nearly four hours to speak their piece.
Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart opposed the move.
“I am reminded we are your servants,” Madore said. “You have my word to you that I will listen. And just lastly, I want to share that I have no intention of ever moving public comment behind any business in the future. I will listen. Thank you for that feedback.”
Madore mulled the idea of regularly moving public comment to later in the commissioner’s agenda on May 8, a day after the marathon meeting that began at 6 p.m. and lasted until 12:30 in the morning. The public comment was pushed back in order to keep county staff from having to stay late, but people in the audience became outraged by the move, seeing it as an effort to stymie their voice. About 40 people who signed up to testify during public comment at that meeting weren’t present by the time their names were read.
The two Republican commissioners have taken a verbal lashing over the past two weeks as incensed members of the public harangue them for their recent appointment of state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, to a $109,656-per-year position of director of the county’s environmental services department.
The appointment bypassed typical county hiring protocol, and when the topic was broached at a May 1 meeting of commissioners, Stuart left the room in a huff after calling the action “cronyism.”
Madore and Mielke have stuck to the appointment throughout the backlash, which included some 40 people speaking against the hire last week, followed by public discussion of a recall effort and a push for commissioners to place a home rule charter on the ballot.
The two Republican commissioners have said the swift hiring of Benton was critical in the lead-up to the construction season, and have said they are looking for a professional manager of the department. Critics have pointed out that Benton has no background in environmental services or in leading large departments.
Commissioners heard more of the same at Tuesday’s meeting, with commenters saying they were still opposing the hiring of Benton. In all, about 40 people spoke against the commissioner’s recent moves, and about 10 people spoke in support of the commissioners.
But new to the furor was the public comment period idea , coupled with Madore’s consideration of making it permanent.
A few folks told commissioners they were back for round two because they didn’t have a chance to speak last week after growing weary of the lengthy hearing.
Among those who gave up at last week’s hearing were Jack Davis and Jim Kinney, commission meeting regulars who speak pointedly on issues while often introducing a bit of humor to the affair-.
The two speakers often work in tandem, occasionally holding up silly drawings during their comments or using rhyme scheme to speak their piece.
Davis, who has been supportive of Madore’s efforts in the past, told commissioners they have let him down with their recent actions.
“Last week something important died in this room,” Davis said. “It was called democracy. It was replaced by elements of right-wing extremism, religious hypocrisy and a new totalitarian agenda.”
After quoting Aristotle’s views on the hypocritical religious piety of those in political power, Davis suggested the commissioner’s newly adopted weekly prayer be replaced with a seance, so the group could “summon the departed spirits of former commissioners who could then instruct them on how to actually act as commissioners should.”
Some commenters were kind, even thanking commissioners for suggesting bringing the issue of moving public comment to the people.
One supporter, Christian Berrigan, called the public outcry “political warfare.”
“And I want the board to know, that I, for one, am willing to respond with whatever tactics the other side choose to employ,” Berrigan said, noting he believes he could find violations of oaths of office among other officials.
Benton, who started his county job last week, was present at the start of the meeting, during a discussion on consent agenda items. He left before the public comment period started.
After the public comment period, Mielke was quick to point out that Benton was on the job Tuesday, and not absent as some commenters had claimed. The Legislature is meeting in special session in Olympia, but little business is being transacted there as closed-door budget negotiations continue.
Mielke also took issue with commenters’ statements on Benton’s hiring, former Environmental Services Director Kevin Gray’s departure and issues relating to county parks. Stuart ended the meeting with a small token of support for the two commissioners whom he has found himself disagreeing with of late, saying the two have taken a verbal beating with a certain amount of stoicism.
“It ain’t easy to sit up here and go through hours of that,” Stuart said. “So to both of my fellow commissioners, well done. … We may disagree on how it all occurred and we may disagree on what has been done, but you have listened respectfully.”