Saturday, May 15, 2021
May 15, 2021

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Press Talk: Fear and loathing in Crazytown

By , Columbian Editor
Published:
2 Photos
County Environmental Services Director Don Benton walks away.
County Environmental Services Director Don Benton walks away. Photo Gallery

“You’re a scumbag, Lou.”

I wander in and out of conversations all the time. This is one of those. But it’s best I start at the beginning …

Where are we?

Some people call it Crazytown. I call it Tuesday. That’s the day when most of the crazy stuff happens in these parts. Over on Franklin Street. In the tall building.

I decide to go there. It’s a crisp, sunny morning, and the walk will get me away from the usual suspects. I keep my eyes wide open. It takes us all to make a village. We all have stories. And it’s those stories that make us who we are.

I run into my favorite air guitarist. Long hair and beard; I imagine in his better days, he might have been a rock star. Or a rocket engineer. Who knows? It’s delicious to imagine.

Same is true for the screaming lady. She’s often at Esther Short Park. Giving us her view in a bold sort of way. Today, she too is on Franklin Street. Near the tall building. No question, her opinions can be heard.

I wonder what their full story is. Life — like poker — often deals us a challenging hand to play. And most of us don’t play poker all that well.

That doesn’t make us bad. It makes us human. I suspect the screaming lady and the air guitarist are good people. A little different, sure. But good, nonetheless.

I turn slightly to my right and see the tall building. That meeting I’m thinking about attending is up on the sixth floor. There’s no particular reason for going today. Really, any Tuesday would do. I’m at the door now. What lies inside?

Enter at your own risk

I occasionally attend county council meetings. Yes, you have to watch your back when you go. Crazy stuff, stupid stuff, is always just a gavel away. Sometimes I get this far — just outside the meeting room … and wonder how we ended up in our very own “Twilight Zone.” I pull open the door.

Welcome to Crazytown.

I’ve mistakenly wandered into an award ceremony for Heath Henderson, the Public Works director. He’s fit, bright, knowledgeable and well-liked by his staff, and he has an excellent statewide reputation. He knows his stuff.

So he is handed a best-in-the-state plaque. I think I might have sneaked into a group photo of Henderson and his staff, but that’s what cropping and Photoshop are for. I’m certain I’ll disappear.

Mark McCauley, the acting county manager, gets up to praise Henderson. McCauley is very proud of hiring him. So proud, in fact, that he details the vigorous vetting he did before he pulled the trigger on the hire.

“I went to 22 different people. I went to city managers, I went to public works directors at some of our cities, I went to (the Washington State Department of Transportation), I went to other directors in the county, I went to employees in public works, I went to managers in public works, 22 of them. And every single one endorsed Heath’s hiring with enthusiasm.”

Then I spot him. Don Benton. The Don Benton. He’s here. Part of Crazytown. Just small-talking. Working the room. He’s one of our state senators. But he’s also our county’s Environmental Services director.

I’m thinking absolutely everything Director Henderson is, Director Benton is not.

How Benton got his $110,000-a-year county director’s job is still mind-boggling.

I wonder if there was some jiggery pokery at play here.

Henderson had 20 years of experience in public works before he ended up as the Public Works director. Benton’s environmental expertise? He claims he knows the difference between mulch and macaroni salad, but I’m not sure. I’m told he’ll eat anything as long as it’s a freebie.

So I often write about Benton. In unflattering terms. Thus, he is not one of my biggest fans. But Benton claims he never reads me, so how could he know what I have to say about him? I remember that email he sent me:

“I have never read one of your columns … hate to disappoint. I hear you write like crap …”

He has a way with words, I think.

Benton’s vetting

Clearly, if even half of the vetting process on Henderson were done on Benton, he would not have gotten the county job. So just how did he get it? Then it begins to make sense. McCauley hired Henderson. But Republican County Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke hired the Republican Benton. No vetting was necessary. The hiring conversation likely went like this:

Mielke: “Hey David, let’s hire Benton in that big-money county environmental director’s job.”

Madore: “OK, Tom.”

Two politicians put their crony buddy in a county position he didn’t deserve.

Crazytown.

The encounter

When I see Benton a few feet away — and Madore and Mielke getting ready to hold court — it’s showtime.

But a sideshow — an opening act, if you will — is about to happen. Benton begins his slow walk out of the room. I’m sitting on the aisle so he’ll walk right by me.

I do the right thing. I stand, smile and greet him warmly.

“How are you, Don?”

I extend my hand. He refuses to shake. Instead he sidles up next to me. He must have something important to say. He speaks directly into my ear:

“You’re a scumbag, Lou.”

I grin. There must be some irony in there someplace. He walks away. I manage to photograph his backside.

I’m thinking I’ve been called worse. Both the left and right have railed at me. I still keep a text message from longtime Democratic politician Craig Pridemore that would make grown men blush. He’s also not my biggest fan.

But back to Benton. Long after the encounter, I still find myself bemused. But my being bemused shouldn’t dismiss his actions. As a county employee he should have better manners.

Apparently, there is no county code of behavior.

A few in the audience witness the exchange. A few approach me, saying they couldn’t quite believe what they just witnessed. I tell them to believe it. After all, it is the sixth floor.

I begin to wonder if there is anyone — anyone — with whom I wouldn’t shake hands or have a conversation, no matter how strongly I disagreed with them.

And I could think of no one. Benton feels differently.

As I watch him exit the room, alone, I find myself feeling sorry for him. Clearly most of his problems are self-inflicted; he’s been known as a bully for some time. But I still wish he could turn it around. Become a better person.

But that’s a choice he has to make, not me.

Back to normal

The council meeting concludes. It was pretty uneventful. They decided to spend money on a couple of new positions that weren’t budgeted. Such is life.

I begin to make my exit. I’m only allowed to have so much crazy fun in one day. I’ve reached my limit. The walk back to the office begins.

The screaming lady and air guitarist are still working the nonexistent crowd. I stop and pay attention to the lady. I ask her why she screams so much. She says she’s from California and now spends some time at the Share House, but doesn’t really know why she screams. I wish her a good day and keep walking. She smiles. So do I.

The air guitarist is fully engaged. I’m thinking “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. This time, I make eye contact and nod. He nods back without missing a riff.

After the sixth floor, it was good to get back to normal.

I settle in at the office, but before I catch up, I message both Mielke and Madore, the gentlemen — you’ll remember — who were responsible for the Benton hire.

“Please advise your Environmental Services Director Don Benton he should be a little more considerate when a Clark County resident is greeting him.”

I fire up the computer but couldn’t help but wonder what next Tuesday will bring.

Crazytown will be back in session. If I’m near the sixth floor on Franklin Street, I’ll keep my eyes open for rabbit holes and trap doors. I’d advise you to do the same.

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