Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, will lose his county job as part of a reorganization of the Department of Environmental Services, Acting County Manager Mark McCauley said this afternoon. Benton heads that department.
As of July 1, the department will be dissolved and its functions absorbed into other departments, McCauley said. Benton and three other employees who were laid off as part of the reorganization will be on paid administrative leave through June 30.
“We have budget pressures,” McCauley said. “My goal is to make the county as efficient as it can be. I think this reorganization will.”
This is the third time the county has reorganized a department since the home rule charter was approved in 2014. The charter grants McCauley full authority to reorganize departments, which he’s done twice before, he said.
McCauley said the decision is “strictly to do with overhead.”
“This has nothing to do with performance, nothing to do with personalities,” McCauley said, declining to speak to any other questions about whether the move was politically motivated.
“It was definitely Mark’s independent decision,” Council Chair Marc Boldt, no party preference, said following the announcement.
The reorganization will divide the functions and remaining employees to Community Development, Public Works and Public Health, according to a press release. McCauley estimates the merger could save the county as much as $1.26 million over the next 2½ years.
“We’re saving hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Boldt said. “The decision was fairly simple math.”
Benton’s annual compensation (pay and benefits) was about $154,000 in 2015. His position has been the subject of continuing controversy after he was appointed to lead the department in May 2013 on the orders of Republican County Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore. As the controversy built, both men, who at the time had sole authority to hire department heads, have tried to back away from their role in Benton’s hiring. Instead, they blame former County Administrator Bill Barron.
Benton, 59, could also not be reached for comment, but he rarely gives interviews to The Columbian. Earlier this year he said he would not file for re-election to his 17th District Senate seat. Candidate filing takes place next week.
It’s been three years almost to the day since Madore and Mielke tapped Benton to lead the environmental services department during a now-infamous board time meeting in 2013. The issue has continued to be a popular subject for those who comment to the council, despite Madore and Mielke’s continued insistence that they never directed Barron to hire Benton in the first place.
Benton’s appointment also drew criticism from around the state, including a Seattle Times editorial headlined “State Sen. Don Benton for environmental post? Really?”
The hiring also ultimately resulted in the county paying a $250,000 settlement plus attorney’s fees to Anita Largent, who served as the interim environmental services director, after she sued the county alleging unlawful hiring practices and discrimination.
Neither Madore nor Mielke responded to requests Wednesday for comment, but Madore posted about the decision on his Facebook page.
“A top level manager, especially a county manager, owes his bosses, the county council, the decency to collaborate and communicate when considering major organizational changes,” Madore said. “This is another disappointment as we see how McCauley blindsided us all with zero communication.”
Though McCauley denied his decision has anything to do with Benton, earlier this year he had placed him under a new level of scrutiny.
McCauley told Benton in January that he would not be permitted to work on county business while he was performing his duties as a legislator in Olympia.
“Effective immediately please be advised that as a county employee and department director, you are expected to be at work during the county’s regular business hours — Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” McCauley wrote in an email to Benton. “You may no longer report work time on your timesheet unless you are in county offices and that time is during regular business hours.”
Benton pushed back to McCauley’s request.
“I do not understand what I am being punished for?” Benton responded. “You have taken away my ability to telecommute which greatly impairs my ability to … pay my bills.”
Along with Benton, Administrative Services Manager Nick Cimmiyotti and Administrative Assistant Susan Rice will lose their jobs.
So will Chris Clifford, who is listed on the county’s website as a program coordinator in the clean water division of environmental services.
That department — and all its other employees — will be diverted to Public Works, according to a county news release.
“You cannot justify terminating me like this,” Clifford said Wednesday. “This isn’t about being the management team. I’m not on the management team.”
Clifford accused McCauley of retaliation, alleging that the county manager is reacting to an email he sent Madore following whistleblower and harassment complaints filed against the Republican councilor by Oliver Orjiako, director of community planning.
“I was stunned to see the accusations made against you by Oliver Orjiako,” Clifford said in that March 24 email, which Madore later shared on his Facebook page. “The allegation of racial discrimination is patently false.”
Boldt later followed up with McCauley, asking that he “look into the email from Chris Clifford to David Madore.”
“I feel that some action is due,” Boldt wrote.
Clifford said he plans to file a complaint against the county.
“I dared to write a letter to support David Madore and now I’m getting canned,” he said.
Benton hired Clifford in July 2013, shortly after he was hired to lead the department. Clifford lacked experience working for environmental or regulatory agencies, but had been a longtime conservative activist in the Puget Sound area who focused on environmental and open-government issues.
McCauley did not respond to Clifford’s allegations.
Public records indicate Clifford’s total compensation was about $103,000 in 2015. Cimmiyotti’s total compensation was about $118,000, and Rice’s was about $66,000.
The idea to dissolve the department, which was formed in 2009, is not a new one. The idea of eliminating the department was first floated by Democrat Ed Barnes during his brief tenure as a Clark County commissioner in 2014, and the elimination of the department was a campaign platform item for county chair candidate Mike Dalesandro, a Democrat, during last year’s election.
According to a county news release, clean water services, stormwater management, forest practices and vegetation management will move to Public Works. Environmental permit applications regarding habitat and wetlands will move to Community Development. Solid waste, sustainability and environmental education will move to Public Health.
Dr. Alan Melnick, director of Clark County Public Health, welcomed the shift, saying it makes sense from a public health standpoint to have those departments under the same roof.
“We want to make this as seamless and integrate the stuff into what we’re already doing as best as we possibly can,” he said.