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Jan. 29, 2023

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Benton files whistleblower complaint against McCauley

Environmental services director accused county manager of illegal actions, political retaliation

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:

Just weeks before Don Benton was ousted from his job heading the county’s Environmental Services department, the Vancouver senator filed a whistleblower complaint accusing Acting County Manager Mark McCauley of illegal actions and political retaliation.

In a copy of the complaint provided to The Columbian, Benton accuses McCauley of mistreating environmental services employees, violating the Open Public Meetings Act, and “politically motivated” retaliation.

When reached for comment by The Columbian, Benton confirmed he had submitted the complaint to the county Human Resources Department, as well as to the state Auditor’s Office.

“It’s a political vendetta and a fulfillment of (county council Chair) Marc Boldt’s personal vengeance against anything the previous board did including hiring me, and an attempt to cover up inappropriate activities there that I reported,” Benton said.

McCauley announced Wednesday that he was dismantling the Environmental Services department, which Republican Senator Benton was controversially appointed to lead by Republican Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke in 2013 without allowing others the opportunity to apply. McCauley denied Wednesday that there was any political motivation driving the decision, estimating that dissolving the department and divvying its functions to other departments would save the county $1.26 million over the next two-and-a-half years.

Benton, along with three other employees, were placed on administrative leave and will officially be laid off on July 1 when the restructuring is complete.

Benton said after meeting with McCauley he was escorted from the building by Clark County sheriff’s deputies.

“It’s a scare tactic,” Benton said. “You’re telling every other employee this is what happens to you if you report wrongdoing.”

McCauley said he was not aware of the complaint prior to being contacted by The Columbian — whistleblowers are guaranteed confidentiality under state law — and declined to comment further. Boldt did not return a request for comment, and the county’s human resources director, Francine Reis, said it is county policy not to comment on employee complaints.

Benton’s complaint does not seek specific damages, and he declined to comment on whether he plans to file additional complaints or suit against the county.

“I hope that the citizens of this county will wake up to the corruption,” Benton said.

Benton’s allegations

Benton said the decision to file the complaint stemmed in part from the county council’s April 26 meeting, where councilors voted 3-2 to reverse last year’s decision to declare as surplus 20 acres of land near Paradise Point State Park.

Benton alleged in his complaint, as well as at that meeting and in emails to Madore, that McCauley had asked him to prepare a staff report on the property, telling him a majority of the Clark County council had decided to reverse the sale. Such a move outside of a public meeting appears to violate the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

McCauley, as well as Republican Councilors Julie Olson and Jeanne Stewart, denied that a decision had been made behind closed doors.

But Benton called the action “part of an ongoing vendetta that is politically motivated and in contradiction with” human resource policies against discriminating against county employees for their political views.

Madore, on his Facebook page, later suggested that Benton file for whistleblower protection.

“Perhaps Mr. Benton ought to file for whistleblower protection lest he too be targeted or receives a letter similar to the one I received from an attorney hired by a staff member to accuse him also of being a racist,” Madore said, referencing whistleblower and harassment complaints filed against him by Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako.

Benton denied that there was any connection between Madore’s suggestion and his action.

Benton also alleges in the complaint that McCauley has treated environmental services employees unfairly, including Chris Clifford, a program coordinator in the clean water division of environmental services. Clifford, a former Puget Sound political activist who had been hired by Benton, also lost his job in the reorganization.

Benton and Clifford both allege that Clifford was retaliated against after he sent an email to Madore supporting him in the wake of Orjiako’s allegations, which are currently being investigated.

Boldt later followed up with McCauley, asking that he “look into the email from Chris Clifford to David Madore.”

“Mr. Clifford did nothing wrong and did not violate any county policies, yet Manager McCauley verbally chastised Mr. Clifford at the behest of the chair of the council,” Benton alleged.

He also accused McCauley of failing to open job recruitment to the public. He specifies the hiring of Deputy County Manager Bob Stevens and Budget Manager Adriana Prata, who were appointed to their positions early in 2015.

In the complaint, Benton wrote he feared retaliation and claimed he was exposed to a hostile work environment, even hinting at the action that was to come on Wednesday.

“As these illegal acts continue I fear that I will be subject to greater hostility and retaliation,” Benton wrote. “This next level of retaliation may take the form of ‘reorganizing’ the department I direct and terminating my position in the county.”

The county is already in the process of evaluating Benton’s complaint.

Benton met on Tuesday with a private investigator hired by the county to look into the allegations, he said. The Columbian has filed a public records request for contracts between the county and private investigators pertaining to employee complaints. That request remained unfilled as of Friday afternoon.

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Columbian Education Reporter