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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Benton saga exacts high price

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: May 16, 2021, 6:02am

We don’t know whether Don Benton and two other plaintiffs were wronged by Clark County officials in 2016. A jury will decide on that.

But we do know that the county has paid dearly for hiring Benton as director of the now-defunct Department of Environmental Services. And that the hiring was indefensible. And that the trial currently underway is part of a recurring nightmare for local residents, harkening back to when county business was grossly mismanaged.

Benton, then a state senator, was picked for the job in 2013 by county councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke despite having no qualifications and despite a lack of standard hiring procedures.

Steve Stuart, the lone reasonable member of the then-three-person council, said: “This is disgusting. It really is. … You gotta honor the organization, you gotta actually honor the integrity of the organization and the process to find the right people for the job. If after that process you find that he is the right person, God bless. Then you choose him. And you choose him with pride. But to choose him without even going through a process is diminishing and demeaning to him. It’s demeaning to Don Benton because it smacks of political cronyism that you would appoint him without a process. It is saying that he couldn’t make it through the process on his own accord with his own merits.”

All of which is true and memorable and a defining moment in the reign of Madore and Mielke. All of which helped inspire voters to pass a county charter the next year to reconfigure local government. A few years later, Benton lost his job when county officials eliminated the Department of Environmental Services, folding its duties into other departments.

Benton failed upwards, of course. He led Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state — where Trump lost by 16 points — and then landed a position with Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. Wearing out his welcome after three months, he was reassigned to lead the Selective Service System — a position with minimal duties because there is no military draft.

It was an appropriate place for somebody once described by a Seattle columnist as a “bombastic blowhard” who was “three parts bluster, one part bad manners.”

And while Benton, Madore and Mielke have been out of local politics for several years now, their stench continues to linger. Which brings us to the trial expected to conclude this week.

Benton and two other former employees have sued the county, claiming they lost their jobs after filing a whistleblower complaint. County officials claim a reorganization was already in the works. Again, this will be up to a jury to decide; the county’s actions are on trial, not Benton’s qualifications.

But the episode adds to the toll of the brief Madore-Mielke rule over county government, and it proves that poor decisions can have an impact long after they have been rectified. Contrary to common belief, old politicians don’t simply fade away.

Benton, whose only qualification for the environmental job was being a crony of two county commissioners, was hired at a salary of more than $100,000 a year. He continued to be paid at least a portion of that while working in Olympia as a state senator. The county paid $250,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by another employee over unfair practices in the Benton hiring. A judge levied a fine of $40,000 after county officials failed to turn over documents for the current lawsuit. And now taxpayers are funding the defense of a lawsuit.

Despite frequently railing against government waste as a politician, Benton has been slurping at the public trough for decades. And we all are poorer for it. Literally.

The cost of the Benton hiring — both financially and in terms of the county government’s integrity — has been exorbitant. And whether or not Benton and other employees were wronged, there is one conclusion to be drawn — perhaps Madore and Mielke are the ones who should be forced to defend their actions.