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News / Clark County News

Jury hears opening statements in Benton suit against Clark County

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor, and
Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: May 5, 2021, 7:05pm
5 Photos
Plaintiffs Chris Clifford, clockwise from left, Don Benton and Susan Rice pause to talk during a break from the lawsuit trial Wednesday at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.
Plaintiffs Chris Clifford, clockwise from left, Don Benton and Susan Rice pause to talk during a break from the lawsuit trial Wednesday at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Don Benton and two of his employees were laid off from their county jobs less than two weeks after Benton filed a whistleblower complaint about his boss with the county’s Human Resources Department, his attorney said Wednesday.

Benton — at the time a Republican state senator and later a Trump administration appointee — was hired in 2013 for a six-figure job as the director of the now-defunct county Department of Environmental Services. He filed the lawsuit in December 2016 in Clark County Superior Court, along with subordinates Susan Rice, an administrative assistant, and Christopher Clifford, a program coordinator.

Amid a staff reorganization in spring 2016, the three were laid off. They are seeking economic and noneconomic damages for alleged hostility and retaliation during their employment.

The trial began Monday at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds; it is expected to last approximately three weeks.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Evan Bariault, told jurors during his opening statement Wednesday he doesn’t dispute that former county manager Mark McCauley may have wanted to reorganize the department, “but a substantial motivating factor was to get rid of Don Benton and those closest to him.”

The department was created in 2009 because of the community’s response, Bariault said, and then it was dissolved without following the county’s home-rule charter or policy manual. There were no public meetings about the dissolution — it was a decision made unilaterally by McCauley, without voter input or approval from the board, he said. There was no discussion about inefficiencies or budget shortfalls.

He added that none of the plaintiffs were reassigned to other county jobs, and Rice was turned down for every county job she applied for thereafter.

Within his authority

The county’s attorney, Megan Starks, said in her opening statement that McCauley had gained increased authority under the home-rule charter. The new authority included determining the organizational structure of departments. McCauley will testify, she said, it was within his authority to determine the best use of county resources.

“The plaintiffs, in particular Mr. Benton, have a lot of feelings and opinions about everything Clark County does wrong. During the trial, the county’s witnesses will defend themselves from the accusations of Mr. Benton, not with feelings, but with facts,” Starks said.

She said Benton’s feelings have no bearing on the authority of the county manager to make decisions in the public interest.

“This case is largely about intentions and perceptions. Intentions of the citizens of Clark County when in 2014, (they) voted on and approved a home-rule charter, intentions of the county manager in using his authority and his common sense to meet the obligations of his position, and the intention of Don Benton in filing a whistleblower complaint when he knew his job was on the line,” Starks told the jury.

Conflicting stories

In his statement, Bariault noted several instances when Benton brought concerns to the county council regarding unpaid clean water division fees, suspect budget transfers and a lack of documentation, and a potential violation of open meetings laws.

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He also pointed to an alleged confrontation, following an October 2015 hearing on shoreline management, in which McCauley stormed into a management meeting and yelled at Benton. Benton had spoken at the hearing, contradicting information shared about the county program and its level of restrictiveness, Bariault told the jury.

Starks told the jury that McCauley did not believe the department served any purpose, as it didn’t offer any new services and cost a half-million dollars to fund. She said it “came as no surprise to anyone” when McCauley reorganized and reinvested the savings into other departments.

“Don Benton saw this coming. You don’t serve as a politician for 20 years without the ability to read people,” Starks said, prompting an objection from the plaintiffs’ attorney.

Starks said Benton “gathered all of his feelings” about what he thought Clark County was doing wrong, put it in a letter and reported it to human resources, saying he wanted to keep his job. She said the HR director will testify the timing of the complaint was suspect.

McCauley and his assistant considered collective bargaining agreements and consulted human resources and the county’s legal department, Starks said, before proceeding “discreetly to exercise their plan.”

Bariault contended McCauley carried out the dissolution after learning that Benton, Rice and Clifford participated in a confidential performance evaluation of him, and Benton subsequently filed the whistleblower complaint.

Madore, Mielke testify

After opening statements, the plaintiffs called former county councilor Tom Mielke to testify, followed by Rice and former county councilor David Madore. Mielke and Madore appointed Benton to the environmental services job before the home-rule charter was implemented.

Mielke testified about the creation of the department and its funding by the county. He also spoke about the county’s home-rule charter, policy manual and expansion of the council, as well as his relationship to Benton. The two met in 1996 while serving in the state Legislature.

Rice detailed the circumstances surrounding her termination and the events that took place before it.

Following the shoreline management meeting, McCauley looked “angry” and “red-faced,” and told Benton, “Don’t ever do that again,” Rice said.

“I was shocked that that took place,” Rice said.

Following Rice’s testimony, the plaintiffs’ attorney asked Madore about the county’s budget and legislative process, as well as his observations about Benton’s department.

“The department was doing a very good job in contrast to the history when I got there,” Madore said. “The funds were healthy and increasing and above the targets that we had set.”

The trial is set to continue Thursday.

Columbian county government and small cities reporter