Politically motivated job offer by county commissioners?

County extends offer sheet to former freeholder, one-time Republican House candidate

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

Updated: July 17, 2014, 8:54 PM

 

A former freeholder who is leading the charge to torpedo changes to the Clark County charter is the choice to fill a new position within county government.

Commissioners have made a job offer to Peter Silliman, a one-time Republican House candidate for the 18th District, to the newly created position, referred to as a research analyst/policy assistant in an April 9 job description.

County officials have said little about the decision, which followed a series of closed-door interviews with job finalists last week. The county has extended Silliman an offer sheet outlining pay scale and benefits, but as of now the job offer remains verbal, and those details are not available. Silliman is an engineer for CenturyLink, where he’s given two weeks’ notice, he said.

As a freeholder, Silliman represented one of three votes that opposed the creation of a new charter, which will be placed on the November ballot for voter approval. The charter would significantly change county governance, stripping commissioners of some powers and cutting their pay in half.

Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore, both Republicans, have publicly shared Silliman’s opposition to the charter, leading some to question whether choosing him for the position was politically motivated.

Silliman said Tuesday that he and Tracy Wilson, another freeholder who voted against the proposed charter, would be actively campaigning to oppose it. He vowed not to work on anti-charter material while on county time, however.

Commissioner Ed Barnes, known as a vocal opponent of Mielke and Madore before he was appointed to an open board seat in June, said he was disappointed by how the choice of Silliman was handled. Still, Barnes said Silliman was a better candidate for the position than the others because he was the “lesser of four evils.”

Four of the finalists for the position, including Silliman, were local Republicans, including a member of the John Birch Society and a legislative aide for a local Republican lawmaker, Barnes said. The county declined a public disclosure request to release the finalists’ names. Such information is exempt from release under the state’s open records law.

A Democrat, Barnes said he felt fellow commissioners Mielke and Madore again opened themselves up to accusations of cronyism. Of concern to Barnes is that the newly created position would answer directly to the commissioners. Barnes said he was under the impression the new position would work under the county’s senior policy analyst.

“I think this will cause friction within the department,” he said.

The position will provide research assistance to the county commissioners, according to the job description posted in April. It’s a new position, created after the county reshuffled personnel earlier in the year. Its creation will be cost neutral, officials say.

Silliman disputed that the job offer was an act of cronyism.

“It’s hard to say I am a longtime friend (of theirs),” he said, of his relationship with Madore and Mielke. “I wouldn’t call myself a friend — maybe an acquaintance.”

He said that while the commissioners may receive criticism for their decision, he looked forward to working behind the scenes with a team and solving people’s problems in the community.

The job description for the research analyst/policy assistant position calls for that person “advise and represent the board, as well as individual commissioners, in their management and oversight of nearly all aspects of county government.” The description provides no educational requirements, but it does ask for two to three years of experience in a field related to public policy.

Silliman said he has “some” college but no diploma. He’s worked for CenturyLink for more than two decades, he said, conducting research related to telecommunications. He said he expects to take a pay cut to work for the county, but he will gladly do it so he can work more closely within the community.

Reached by phone Thursday, Madore called Silliman the most qualified candidate for the job. Madore said he was surprised Barnes had expressed concerns. The commissioners took steps to follow the proper hiring process, Madore added.

“We voted unanimously,” he said. “There were no differences expressed at all.”

Mielke and Madore continue to receive criticism for their handling of the hiring of Republican state Sen. Don Benton as the county’s environmental services director in May 2013. The commissioners’ hiring of Benton resulted in a workplace discrimination lawsuit, filed by interim Environmental Services Director Anita Largent, which the county settled out of court this year for $250,000. She alleged the county did not follow its own hiring practices.

The county hasn’t acknowledged or admitted wrongdoing in Benton’s hiring, per terms of the settlement.

A job posting for the research analyst/policy assistant position elicited dozens of résumés, which the county whittled down to a list of finalists.

At the time of Benton’s hiring, former Commissioner Steve Stuart called it “political cronyism.” Benton, a long-time opponent of the Columbia River Crossing, was instrumental in killing a funding package for the CRC during the spring 2013 legislative session. That work was publicly lauded by Mielke and Madore, who have also been vocal critics of the mega project.

In part, the hiring of Benton acted as the impetus for the freeholders, a locally elected board tasked with rewriting the county charter, to convene in fall 2013.

Mielke said Wednesday he didn’t know when Silliman would start work, but he wanted to give the county’s newest employee time to leave his current employer on good terms.

Silliman said he could begin work as early as the first week of August.