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News / Clark County News

Clifford not shy about speaking up

Benton 'hired an activist' with a history of challenging power, status quo in state

By Erik Hidle
Published: November 30, 2013, 4:00pm

On the evening of Oct. 7, Christopher Clifford entered the public eye locally when he stood at a microphone and delivered an impassioned speech to Clark County legislators that drew a round of applause from a crowd of some 200 people.

“They have too much,” Clifford said of the Washington State Department of Transportation and how he believes the agency has blundered away public money. “They don’t have a money problem, they have a spending problem.”

Clifford spoke his piece to a bipartisan gathering of state legislators interested in hearing citizen views on state transportation spending.

Among the legislators was his new boss, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Folks began to take notice of Clifford in the weeks leading up to that meeting as he sat in the back of Clark County commissioner meetings taking notes.

Clifford works for Benton in Clark County’s environmental services department as an environmental compliance coordinator. He was hired on July 22, and on Sept. 4, Clifford formally updated his voter registration stating he lives in Clark County.

He is paid $62,148 per year.

The hire was an exciting one for Benton. In an interview with The Columbian

in July, Benton excitedly announced that he’d “hired an activist” when discussing the fact that a prime goal of his department is to not have the county found liable in any lawsuits.

Like Benton, Clifford lacks experience working for an environmental or regulatory agency. Looking at Clifford’s background reveals the man Benton hired is indeed a long-time activist who has cast his gaze to environmental and open government issues. He’s also been a commenter at Puget Sound public meetings and legislative hearings, and he’s acted as a wily thorn in the side of anyone he believes is wronging the state of Washington.

Clifford’s history

On his résumé, Clifford lists several of his notable legal victories, the first of which is a 1988 battle against the state’s pollution control hearings board to alter the usage of pesticides in a Renton-area wetland.

From there Clifford tackled the state’s Shoreline Management Act, went after perceived free speech limitations and Open Meetings Act violations, and launched political battles against both Democrats and Republicans.

His victories are capstoned by a unanimous 2008 decision by the Washington Supreme Court to let him move forward with a recall of former Port of Seattle Commissioner Pat Davis.

And while the recall failed when he fell short of the signature threshold, his bid to unseat Davis could be considered successful. On the same day the court ruled the recall could proceed, Davis announced she would not seek re-election.

Clifford hasn’t just entered into winning efforts. There are lost battles as well, some of which were infamous in King County politics.

Some folks blamed Clifford for Boeing’s sometimes contentious attitude with the state as he unsuccessfully went after the aerospace manufacturer’s operations in Washington for perceived violations of environmental standards.

In 2000, Clifford lost a case that was well-covered by local media when he claimed the city of Seattle had conspired to shutter his downtown bar because its clientele was black.

And in the leadup to a February 2009 election, as he was pursuing the recall campaign against Davis, Clifford declared his candidacy for King County elections director. The reason for his campaign, Clifford says, was to challenge the residency of Sherill Huff, who was also running for the position.

The challenge proved unsuccessful, but Clifford was adamant in his claims, saying he had entered the race just to gain legal standing in his quest to prove her candidacy was illegitimate. And his methods were calculated. According to a Seattle Times story, Clifford told the board he had placed tape on the bottom of the front door at Huff’s listed residence to prove she was not living at the home.

Clifford has also worked as staff assistant in the state Legislature, a schoolteacher, and he’s unsuccessfully run for Renton city council.

Clifford talks past, new job

So what makes Clifford put his time into the efforts, even if he admits some are unlikely to be successful?

“I just don’t have a problem going after people if they’re being bad,” Clifford said.

Clifford says he aligns politically with state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, whom he once worked for in the Legislature as an aide, and is a political ally of his new boss, Benton.

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But while he’s allied himself with conservatives, he’s also gone after a number of Republicans for open government violations, and he says that Boeing battle sure “made some of the Republicans mad.”

Case in point: Clifford recently supported Roach in her efforts to loosen recall standards in the state of Washington. Among those who could potentially be hurt by such a move are Republican Clark County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke — now Clifford’s top bosses at the county — who have heard a vocal opposition state its wish is to bring the two men to a recall vote.

Clifford kind of shrugs when he considers that. He says his guiding principle in his activism is that “government should be unfailingly honest.”

Hence he continues to show up at places like legislative meeting where he will address his boss.

And that is why he shows up to weekly Clark County commissioner meetings to contact folks who have issues with the Environmental Services Department. He says whether folks have good or bad opinions, he wants to speak with them.

“I’ve been in their seat,” Clifford said. “You know, those people put in a lot of hours. And you may not agree with them, and they may not articulate themselves like a Harvard lawyer, but you should respect them for the hours they put in. So that gets my ear when someone has an issue. Because I have been right where they are sitting.”

Clifford has been seen at the county more and more lately, appearing as a jack-of-all-trades for Benton’s department.

Along with the public contact at the commissioner meetings, he’s been seen in the county lobby and outside the county Public Service Center distributing information on the department.

Clifford says another key part of his job is research. In September, he joined Benton in a meeting with commissioners to discuss concerns over the state of the county’s clean water fund. In that meeting, Benton consulted him at times for information, making it clear the department director trusts Clifford with the subject matter.

Benton’s department

Cross-referencing Clifford with Benton online offers one possible connection. They both went on a trip to China in June 2007 where Roach was the group’s leader. Clifford says he understands both he and Benton attended the same trip, but he doesn’t believe he met him at that time as there were “over 1,000” people, and the delegation was split between educators and legislators.

Regardless of how they met, the hiring of an activist, who has often been at odds with government, could signal that Benton is truly putting his first touches on the department he was appointed to lead on May 1 by Madore and Mielke.

In an email to a county human resources employee in July, Benton states Clifford is “the only one I know of to represent himself before the (Washington) State Supreme Court and win the case. He is very talented.”

When asked about the hire by email, Benton offered this statement: “He has proven to be smart, energetic, very knowledgeable about the federal permit and an independent thinker, all excellent qualities for a compliance coordinator.”