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News / Clark County News

Press Talk: The backstory on Benton

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor
Published: May 12, 2016, 6:10am

In the end, it wasn’t his unexplainable hiring, his lack of expertise, or even his abrasive and unbecoming behavior.

No, county Environmental Services Director Don Benton lost his $154,000-a-year job Wednesday because of something he often champions as a conservative Republican:

Reducing the size of government.

Oh, the delicious irony.

Here’s a guy who would shout from the mountaintops that government needs to cut unneeded positions. Except, maybe, when that unneeded government position was his.

•••

Reviewing Benton’s history truly is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. This guy is also a state senator. You can’t turn around — either in Olympia or Clark County — and not find somebody who dislikes him. A lot.

And let’s be clear. This intense dislike is not just from your typical liberals. There are loads of Republicans who would love to see this guy disappear, and now it is happening.

Playing the political game the way Benton plays it — scorched earth, take no prisoners — pretty much guarantees to put you in a bad spot. In the end, he was relegated to holding hands with County Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke. Those are the same two guys who slipped Benton in the back door to get him hired in the first place.

So Benton is out as the county environmental director. And remember, he’s also out as state senator. He announced earlier this year he won’t run for re-election. He said it was because he wanted to devote more time to his county job (whoops!). But the real reason why he isn’t running for re-election is because he has no chance to win. And he knew it.

He could not escape his past and — frankly — the diligent work of The Columbian.

How it began

Benton was losing his grip on the county even before his Republican cronies Madore and Mielke — aka the M&M boys — handed him the environmental services director’s job.

But the way in which he was hired — with no vetting — put him in a deep hole he could never dig himself out of.

Remember, Benton has no environmental credentials. I mean, he couldn’t tell the difference between E. coli and eggplant Parmesan.

Did he see it coming?

I’ve already been asked several times if Benton saw it coming.

And I guess it depends on how you define “saw it.”

He may not have seen it coming on Wednesday, but his ouster was inevitable.

I think Benton saw it coming the day after the county charter was approved. That eliminated the M&M boys’ majority and ended Benton’s free ride. Like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, he was always looking over his shoulder, waiting for someone to catch him.

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On Wednesday, Acting County Manager Mark McCauley caught him.

Look, Benton has done lots of stupid stuff, but he isn’t stupid. Of course he saw it coming. Let’s not forget last year Benton reportedly ran his wife for a county council position. If she’d won, it would have allowed her to team up with the M&M boys to secure his job. But she got thrashed.

And in a column I wrote on Feb. 1, I said this:

“Look for the county council — sometime in the middle of this year — to announce a study completely overhauling how the county does its business. As part of that overhaul, you likely will see the elimination of the environmental service department. Most of those in the department will simply be assigned elsewhere. But the director job? Benton’s job? Gone.”

Now, Benton swears he has never read my columns, but we know that’s not true. So how do you not see it coming after reading that?

Cleaning up its act

This mess the county has been in ever since Madore was elected is slowing getting cleaned up:

• Benton isn’t running for re-election as state senator.

• Benton is out as county director of environmental services.

• Mielke has announced he won’t run for re-election.

• Madore … stay tuned.

•••

County Chair Marc Boldt said this was the first big independent decision made by McCauley, although he conceded McCauley has his support as well as that of Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Julie Olson.

Like McCauley, Boldt also said the decision was made to consolidate government functions, which will save money.

But he conceded he’s not a big fan of Benton.

I asked Boldt if he had heard how Benton took the news. He said he had.

“Not very good,” Boldt said.

•••

McCauley, three county councilors and county residents get the credit for staying vigilant on the characters who are hurting our county. And The Columbian gets credit for keeping the county informed on those issues.

Let’s stay vigilant.

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Columbian Editor