Monday, October 18, 2021
Oct. 18, 2021

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Press Talk: Is Don Benton a genius?

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Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files 
 Don Benton has been working the system most of his career. (The Columbian files)
Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files Don Benton has been working the system most of his career. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Our good friend Don Benton’s name was in the news — again — after he took taxpayers for another wad of cash.

This time, it was a settlement payout following a jury award.

And right about now I suspect a few loyal readers of this column are thinking, “Oh boy, Benton’s about to be taken behind the shed to get introduced to Mr. Switch.”

Well, my loyal readers, you’d be wrong. It’s time to give Benton his due.

The man is a genius. There, I said it. And I mean it.

Now before I build my genius case for Benton I should get newer readers up to date. Benton is a former state senator. Benton is the former director of the county’s Department of Environmental Services. And Benton is the former director of the U.S. Selective Service System, under former President Donald Trump. I’m sure he has a bunch of other “former” titles hanging out there as well, but you get the picture. The one constant here is Benton has made his living in and around our bureaucratic government.

And Benton’s genius revolves around his recognizing the soft spots in the system. So if there is blame to be placed — you guessed it — it’s not on Benton. It’s on our government. OK, let’s begin.

Two for one

When Benton was doing his state senator thing, an opening appeared at the county’s Department of Environmental Services. Look, Benton likely couldn’t tell the difference between hydrogeology and a ham sandwich, but he figured he could do both jobs simultaneously. So he convinced a couple of county commissioners he was the guy … and just like that, he was he guy!

Genius! Score one for Benton. Government zero.

Juggling

At first the county job was set up so whenever Benton was in Olympia doing Senate stuff, he’d have to take time off (like vacation time or something) from his county job. But that condition somehow disappeared. Just vanished. And he was then able to do both jobs — and get paid for both jobs. There would be days when he’d be up in Olympia working hard for those who elected him and — AND — he was also able to be running an entire department here in Clark County.

Genius! Score two for Benton. Government still zero.

The elimination

Enter Mark McCauley. McCauley had been around the county government for several years. And a few months after Benton was hired in 2013, McCauley was named county manager. McCauley — it’s fair to say (and he’s said it several times) — was not a fan of Benton getting the environmental services director’s job. In fact he wasn’t a fan of the department either.

Back in 2009 environmental services was broken out from other departments. When that happened taxpayers were pretty much assured it wouldn’t cost any extra money. You know how that goes. But McCauley said he saw immediately — long before he became county manager — there was no way costs wouldn’t increase. I spoke to McCauley a few days ago about all of this.

“I didn’t believe it should have been created in the first place. Part of my role as a public servant is to maximize value to the taxpayer and eliminating that department and putting things back where they came from, where they were working just fine, and saving $500,000 in the process every year made good sense to me.”

So that’s what he did in 2016. And it’s right about now where my astute readers begin doing the math. Minus one department also means minus one Don Benton.

McCauley insists he didn’t do it to fire Benton.

“Getting rid of Don Benton was a side benefit of me eliminating the department.”

I happen to believe him, but the human brain is a beautiful, complicated thing. Could one have been so consumed about Benton that the department elimination was the main reason but that Benton was the impetus? Who knows.

Oh, there was a whistleblower thing filed by Benton in there someplace and then a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Benton and two others. When all was said and done, a jury decided that Benton was a wronged party.

Genius once again! Benton three. Government still zero.

A bonus zero

As an addendum I think the government gets a bonus zero for creating the environmental services department. There was simply no need to do it. It was government expansion with little payoff. If it hadn’t been created there would have been no director’s job to be filled by Benton. Can I prove that creating the department was a waste of time? Not really. But if it was so critical why hasn’t someone brought it back? It’s been gone five years.

Genius or not?

I ran my Benton genius label by McCauley — who left Clark County years ago and took another job — to see if he agreed with me. “Snakes are that way,” he responded.

Ouch!

But I needed another opinion. So I tracked down County Councilor Temple Lentz. She wasn’t in government for most of this Benton fun but I consider her the second-brightest person in Clark County. And she was around for the county’s executive session to try to sort out the Benton mess. That’s when the county leaders went behind closed doors to figure out their next steps after losing the court case. Temple couldn’t talk about that. But hey, I’m pretty good at speculating — that’s when the county said, “No mas, pay everyone off and let’s move forward without this Benton thing.”

So — Temple Lentz — is Benton a genius for being able to work the system?

“I’ll say that it’s revolting impressive.”

I texted Benton asking him to be interviewed for this column but I never heard back from him. Fair enough. But sir — I repeat — you are a mastermind! You are a genius!

Final thoughts

Look, when companies’ computer systems get hacked, what do they do? They go out and hire one of the culprits to help them figure out how to protect themselves from future hackers. So what should our county do? You guessed it. Hire Don Benton to help them figure out how to not get taken advantage of.

It would be worth every penny. I am pretty sure he’d charge a reasonable rate.

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