Benton collecting pay from county, state

New verbal agreement allows senator to work for county during session

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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photoMark McCauley Clark County administrator

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Don Benton hiring agreement

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Clark County Environmental Services Director Sen. Don Benton is being paid for his county job even while he's up in Olympia during the legislative session.

And he's doing so despite a written agreement — signed by Benton — saying this wouldn't happen. This results in Benton being paid for both the county and state job, increasing his salary and adding to his pension.

County Administrator Mark McCauley said Benton had approached him before the session to cut this new deal. The previous arrangement had been hammered out by former County Administrator Bill Barron.

The Vancouver Republican, who serves the 17th District, has received roughly two-thirds of his eligible county pay so far during the eight-week short session, which ends March 13. That's despite a hiring agreement, written by Barron, stating that Benton could only use his accrued vacation and personal time during his stint away from the county.

Benton signed the agreement on May 6, 2013.

But that agreement was verbally nixed before the beginning of the legislative session, when Benton approached McCauley about allowing him to telecommute from Olympia and bill the county for the hours he worked. McCauley agreed to the terms, but did not put them into writing.

McCauley said expecting Benton to take a weeks-long leave of absence would be "unreasonable."

"Then I have to tell him, 'Do not do a stitch of work while you are up there,'" McCauley said. "And how reasonable is that? Not reasonable at all. It's his department, and he's responsible for what happens in that department whether he's up there or whether he's down here."

When the two talked prior to the start of the session, there was a mutual agreement that Benton would receive a portion of his salary for the county work he performed in Olympia.

Benton did not respond to a request for comment.

By not taking a leave of absence, Benton is netting thousands of dollars in pay and retirement benefits.

Since the legislative session began Jan. 13, Benton has received about $8,552 in gross pay from the county. The environmental services job, for which Benton received a $5,000 annual raise in January, pays $114,648. He's paid an additional $42,106 for his state Senate position.

For both positions, Benton is eligible for PERS 2, the public employee retirement system. His benefits package has the potential to be a lucrative one. Assuming Benton receives full pay for each position, he could collect about $70,000 a year in retirement income.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said it's common for legislators to take a leave of absence from their other jobs. An addictions counselor at the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Moeller said he's taken a leave of absence in each of his 11 years in the House.

"I'm surprised he's not taking a leave of absence, because I was under the impression he would," Moeller said. "I find it very odd he'd find it difficult to do. … That's what he signed up for."

McCauley said he hadn't seen the agreement between Barron and Benton. The agreement says that while Benton is on his leave of absence, he "may take said time off on a paid time off (PTO) basis or not," at Benton's discretion. It goes on to warn that Benton's benefits could be negatively affected if he took an unpaid leave of absence.

How Benton would juggle his county duties with his elected position was one of several questions surrounding his hiring last spring.

Benton was appointed to the county's top environmental position in May, when commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore tapped him to replace outgoing director Kevin Gray. Gray had filed a whistleblower complaint against the county before resigning and accepted a settlement. At the time, Commissioner Steve Stuart decried Benton's hire as "political cronyism."

While Benton's background immediately came into question after his hiring, Mielke and Madore said they were certain they couldn't find a better candidate.

In response to questions about Benton's ballooning retirement package following the hiring, Barron said the new environmental services director would step aside during legislative sessions.

In an interview Wednesday, Mielke said it was the commissioners' understanding that Benton would work for the county during his free time, ensuring he wasn't double billing either the county or the state.

He said he hasn't seen Benton's work flagging at the county or the state.

"Sen. Benton does work," Mielke said. "We do need his input down here."

For Mielke, there's little concern that Benton is spreading himself too thin as he works two high-profile jobs. He said, "We're thankful he gives us so much time."

Some of that time, though not all of it, is documented in the county's remote computer access program. It allows employees to log on to the county's computer system remotely. The county tracks, and time stamps, when employees log on and off.

A review of Benton's computer activity from Olympia indicates there were days in which he logged on for a few minutes, and others when he was on for hours. On Feb. 17, Benton signed onto the system at 10:11 a.m. and logged off at 11:39 p.m., more than 13 hours of nonstop connection. On other occasions, he was on for briefer periods, such as a 30-minute span in the morning of Feb. 23.

McCauley, who supervises department directors, said there's no way for him to completely track whether employees are working, or how they use the county's remote computer access program. In Benton's case, he added, it would be impossible to shadow him in Olympia.

He said the county's remote-network system will automatically log a user out after a period of time if there are no keystrokes or other computer activity. This, he said, ensures employees aren't logging on and not doing work.

"Certainly, I see enough unpaid hours here to make me believe that he's being completely honest," McCauley said. "I would never assume that someone would punch out, be gone for eight weeks, 12 weeks, and not be plugged into his office. It's completely and totally unreasonable."