A Clark County employee intends to file a lawsuit against the county, and Clark County Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore, over the two Republicans’ decision to bypass county protocol when hiring state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as environmental services director.
Anita Largent, who served as the interim director of environmental services before Benton’s appointment, alleges in a tort claim filed with the county Thursday 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.
Largent, who is still a manager within the environmental services department, also states in the claim that the appointment of Benton not only violated county policy, but also state law against discrimination and portions of the U.S. Civil Rights Acts of 1964.
Specifically, the claim alleges gender discrimination in the hiring because no qualified female candidates were considered.
A tort claim puts the county on notice that it should expect a lawsuit following a 60-day notification period. The county now has the opportunity to investigate the claim and prepare a defense, or offer to settle the claim.
Chris Horne, the county’s legal counsel, said he had received the claim and will review it.
“We will take it very seriously,” Horne said.
When contacted for comment on the filing, Mielke said he was surprised, and commented that he thought highly of Largent.
“For this to come so late is surprising,” Mielke said. “I recommended her for interim director, and I chose her at that time for her calm (attitude) and the respect she had from the employees. So when this comes out now, well, this isn’t in her nature. This doesn’t sound like the Anita that I recommended for the interim (role).”
Mielke said he had yet to see the tort claim and didn’t offer comment on the specific allegations.
Madore did not return a message left seeking comment.
Largent’s attorney, Gregory Ferguson, said at this point in time he and Largent are prepared to file a lawsuit on “Day 61.”
“We want to take some depositions from people in the room,” Ferguson said. “We want to get the county commissioners under oath. We want to find out what really happened, not just what David Madore posts on his Facebook page.”
Earlier this week, Madore made a post on his Facebook page titled “Don Benton — the real story of a good man and my apology.”
In the post, Madore states that the hiring of Benton was accidental, and occurred after he became flustered. Madore blames Commissioner Steve Stuart’s angry departure from the meeting for leaving him “feeling somewhat disoriented.” He also blames former County Administrator Bill Barron for appointing Benton, as Madore believes Barron was reacting with an “emotional response.”
Benton’s appointment has been a continued sore spot for commissioners and members of the public. Some consider the hiring to be legal and appropriate, while others — including Stuart, a Democrat — have claimed cronyism. Benton, a career legislator, speaker and business consultant, had no experience directing a government agency or working in environmental services positions.
In the aftermath of the appointment, the public packed a hearing room to chide the two Republican commissioners for their actions and several claimed they would be investigating grounds for a formal recall. But that never bore fruit.
A small number of commenters continue to testify at public hearings that the hiring was mishandled.
The job of director opened in February when the previous director, Kevin Gray, announced his resignation. While Gray’s official last day was in April, he did not return after the announcement. He has since taken another job.
An investigation by The Columbian discovered Gray did not leave on his own terms, and had filed for whistle-blower protection from Mielke.
The essence of Gray’s grievance was that Mielke was retaliating against him for his investigation into improper use of county funds and time by county employees, one of whom was Mielke’s neighbor, campaign contributor and friend.
Mielke has denied those allegations.
When the position of environmental services director came open, Largent was named to the interim role. In her claims, she notes that her performance in that role should have afforded her consideration for the job.
“Despite her many years of exemplary service, and having performed well as the interim director of Environmental Services for nearly (three) months, Ms. Largent was denied equal employment opportunity,” the tort claim states. “Claimant was denied even the chance, as promised by written policy, to apply and be considered for the open position even though she possessed superior qualification and far superior relevant experience compared to the candidate summarily chosen.”
Largent’s attorney, Ferguson, sent out a press release Thursday announcing the filing of the tort claim. In it, he calls Largent “absolutely the most qualified candidate” and states that Mielke told her that at one point in time.
Ferguson said as Largent is still an employee of the county, she will not be responding to questions on the matter, but did release a statement from her in the press release.
“What happened here was a travesty, and an affront to me and to every other county employee who works hard every day believing that the county’s commitment to equal employment opportunity actually means something,” Largent said.