Benton critic receives outpouring of support

200 attend Clark County commissioners meeting after Barnes threatened with lawsuit

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

A crowd of more than 200 people, many emotional and clamoring, sat or stood at Tuesday night's meeting of Clark County commissioners. And most of them wore stickers, carried signs or joined in rounds of applause to indicate they were there in support of Ed Barnes.

Barnes, a retired leader of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48 and engaged community volunteer, received a letter earlier this month from an attorney for Clark County Environmental Services Director and state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

The letter states Benton is considering legal action against Barnes for continually speaking negatively to county commissioners about their hiring of Benton to his county role.

After about an hour of public comment on the matter, mostly from folks in support of Barnes and wearing name tags that stated "I am Ed Barnes," the real Ed Barnes stood up and took the microphone.

"This isn't about Ed Barnes," he told the commissioners. "This is about freedom of speech in this community."

Barnes told commissioners that he, too, had been in contact with attorneys over the matter, and that he believes a lawsuit against the county could be forthcoming for his having received such a letter from a county employee.

He then addressed his comments to the standing-room-only crowd in the hearing room.

"We need to stand up," Barnes said. "We need to start coming to every meeting."

He then addressed comments to Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke, both Republicans, telling them, "You guys have killed Clark County."

Barnes received a standing ovation for his comments, and some 25 others backed Barnes through comments against commissioners during the two-hour-long meeting.

Among the gripes commenters brought forward were the litigious threat brought by Benton, the notion that Benton is ill-qualified for his role, and the hiring process that commissioners used to place Benton in the directorship of the environmental services department.

Madore and Mielke appointed Benton to the environmental job in May during a meeting that saw Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, declare cronyism and angrily leave the room while yelling back an expletive at his fellow commissioners.

Among those who spoke against the hiring on Tuesday night was Rekah Strong, the county's former chief diversity and inclusion officer, who left her position in July.

"You 100 percent circumvented our process," she said to Madore and Mielke. "What you did went against the ethos of this organization and the ethos of this community."

Strong then became the first former employee of the county to tell commissioners that their staff works in "fear" of them, and stated there is an exodus of staff from the county organization.

Asking the two commissioners to rethink the hire, Strong said, "I believe the two of you are better than this."

On the other side

While the majority in attendance spoke against the Republican commissioners' actions, at least nine spoke in favor of the works of Madore and Mielke.

At one point, Debbie Peterson asked Stuart to directly answer if he believed the commissioners had broken any rules by making the appointment of Benton, saying a "yes or no" would suffice.

"Yes," Stuart responded.

Clearly surprised, Peterson then asked why he believed that; Stuart told her he would not respond, as this was her time to comment.

At one point, a supporter of the Republican commissioners threatened Stuart, bringing about an angry response from the crowd.

"We're going to get to you," said Dick Sohn. "We're going to expose you. We're going to fillet you open like a carp."

Sohn went on to say he had taken photos of people at the meeting and his group would work to "expose" them soon.

The next speaker, Chuck Miller, who is the husband of Madore's personal assistant, gave a more calm statement of support.

"I appreciate what's being done," Miller said. He then asked that people consider their work and "start helping these commissioners that are really making a difference."

Commissioner comments

At the end of the public comment period, Madore told those still in attendance that Benton is "well-qualified (and) he's been here since May and he has a very good track record."

Madore then went into some specifics about his personal relationship with Benton, and how he recently attended an Eagle Scout ceremony for one of Benton's sons.

"I stand by him and I do respect him," Madore said.

Mielke said he is surprised people continue to state that commissioners violated their hiring policy.

"We have (a few) attorneys in this room who might disagree with you," Mielke said.

Commissioners will have to soon make a decision on how confident they are on that matter. They must respond to Anita Largent, who served as the interim director of environmental services before Benton's appointment. She alleges in a tort claim that the hiring of Benton "violated nearly every written county policy promising equal employment opportunity, non-discrimination and fairness in hiring."

She is seeking damages of at least $300,000.