Sunday, June 13, 2021
June 13, 2021

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Clark County worker: Benton whistleblower complaint not factor in layoff

Ex-state senator also testifies, says ‘I was being treated like a criminal’

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:

A former county employee who helped carry out the layoffs of Don Benton and two of his employees told a jury Thursday she was never concerned the trio was terminated for being whistleblowers.

Marlia Jenkins testified she became aware Benton had filed a whistleblower complaint with the county human resources director well after the county manager had decided to reorganize the Department of Environmental Services and end his employment.

Benton — at the time a Republican state senator and later a Trump administration official — was appointed in 2013 as the director of the now-defunct county department. He, along with subordinates Susan Rice, an administrative assistant, and Christopher Clifford, a program coordinator, were laid off in May 2016 amid a staff reorganization.

In December 2016, they filed a lawsuit in Clark County Superior Court alleging hostility and retaliation during their employment.

Trial in the case began Monday at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds; it is expected to last approximately three weeks.

On the Web:

The trial is not physically open to the public, but it can be viewed remotely by following the link: https://clark.wa.gov/superior-court/zoom-information.

Benton also took the stand late Thursday afternoon to testify about concerns he brought to the county regarding unpaid clean water division fees, suspect budget transfers and a lack of documentation, and a potential violation of open meetings laws.

In one instance, he spoke of a confrontation with then-county manager Mark McCauley following an October 2015 hearing on shoreline management. (Benton had spoken at the hearing, contradicting information shared about the county program and its level of restrictiveness.)

Benton said McCauley “burst” into a management meeting and screamed at him in front of his managers. McCauley reportedly told him he was out of line and displayed unprofessional behavior, and that McCauley was considering reprimanding him, Benton testified.

“I was kind of shocked actually,” he said.

Benton later reported it to the board of county commissioners, he said, and he believed the county’s attorney.

He ultimately filed a whistleblower complaint against his boss — which Rice and Clifford helped draft — on April 26, 2016. Two weeks later, “I was fired,” Benton said, adding that the department was “wiped out.”

Benton appeared to choke back tears as he testified about the day he was laid off, reaching for a tissue.

“It was like I was being treated like a criminal,” he said.

McCauley’s prerogative

Jenkins, who worked in the county budget office during this time, spent most of the day on the witness stand. She was responsible for preparing the required documentation to human resources to support the reorganization.

She testified it was McCauley’s prerogative to reorganize the department, under the home-rule charter passed by voters in 2014. She believed he had majority support from the county council, though there was no documentation of board approval before Benton, Rice and Clifford were laid off.

The county manager had received feedback from other departments that the consolidation was creating “some inefficiencies and a lack of effectiveness” by separating the environmental staff from the services they supported, Jenkins testified.

She said some in the community also voiced concerns about a perceived slowdown in processing development applications. A number of environmental services employees were permit processors, she said.

Jenkins never talked to environmental services staff about the concerns, she said, and was unsure if McCauley had done so.

She testified that she was aware McCauley did not agree with the function of the department, which was created in 2009 under former county administrator Bill Barron.

However, she disagreed with the plaintiffs’ characterization that the reorganization was “done behind closed doors” — there was no public meeting or survey conducted for citizen input.

Though it was “done discreetly,” Jenkins and McCauley discussed the reorganization with county directors, to include human resources, public works, community development and public health. She testified that no one objected to it.

She declined to speculate on whether McCauley had discussed it with County Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke, whom she was aware were supportive of Benton’s work.

Benton will continue his testimony Friday.

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