Clark County, employee reach tentative settlement

Discrimination alleged in hiring of Benton

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 

Clark County has reached a tentative agreement in a workplace discrimination lawsuit filed by a top manager in the department of environmental services.

It will likely put a cap on months of legal wrangling stemming from the controversial hiring of state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as the department's head.

Anita Largent, a division manager who also served as the department's interim director for three months, filed the lawsuit in December. The suit alleged that commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore, both Republicans, violated state law, portions of the U.S Civil Rights Act and the county's own policies in hiring Benton to head the county's environmental services department. The lawsuit sought damages of at least $300,000.

The county Monday did not release the terms of the agreement. Mary Keltz, the county's director of public information and outreach, said it was too early to discuss details. "To my knowledge, ink hasn't been applied (to a settlement)," she said.

Benton announced to his staff late last week that Largent had been placed on paid administrative leave.

"That's all I've been authorized to disclose to my staff," he said.

While Largent's attorney, Greg Ferguson, said he was limited by the agreement on what he could disclose, he affirmed that it was reached late last week, saying it was in the best interest of both parties.

"This was truly an amicable agreement," Ferguson said. "We agreed it was in the best interest of all involved."

Ferguson said Largent has voluntarily stepped down from her job at the county.

The agreement, tentative for now, is poised to close one chapter in the controversy surrounding Benton's hiring — a quarrel that began with the departure of the department's former director, Kevin Gray, who resigned from the position a year and a half ago after filing for whistle-blower protection.

Gray alleged Mielke had retaliated against him for investigating the improper use of county funds and work time by employees, including Mielke's neighbor. Upon Gray's departure, Largent took over as the interim director, a position she held for three months.

Madore and Mielke then hired Benton last May without subjecting the position to the typical hiring process, leading former Commissioner Steve Stuart, the board's lone Democrat, to characterize the move as "political cronyism." Madore has referred to Benton as a "friend," while Mielke worked with him in the state Legislature.

Benton's hiring drew fire from many and led Madore and Mielke to repeatedly defend him as a good, honorable man and a scoutmaster who had been unfairly maligned by political opponents.

Because of the settlement, the suit won't go to trial and the two commissioners at the heart of it will avoid being deposed.

While the terms of the agreement are still unclear, Largent is not expected to return to her previous job at the department of environmental services.