Sunday, August 14, 2022
Aug. 14, 2022

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In Our View: Move on from costly county council settlement

The Columbian

A $1.4 million settlement between Clark County and plaintiffs in a wrongful termination case marks the costly end to a messy saga.

The county council last week approved the settlement involving former employees Don Benton, Christopher Clifford and Susan Rice. In May, a jury had ruled that they were wrongfully terminated after a whistleblower complaint was filed in 2016; the jury awarded a judgment of $693,998. Now, the county’s insurance carriers will pay $1,005,000 of the settlement, which includes about $800,000 in legal fees.

“Any and all claims regarding this matter are considered resolved,” County Manager Kathleen Otto said.

That is a relief for local residents. And it is an expensive reminder of the cost of incompetent and misfeasant leadership.

Benton was hired in 2013 by then-county commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke to run the Department of Environmental Services. He had scant qualifications for the job, and the commissioners bypassed established hiring practices in appointing Benton, who was a sitting state senator. At the time, the county’s leadership board had three members, giving the Madore-Mielke cabal unfettered power.

Steve Stuart, then the third member of the commission, said: “This is disgusting. It really is. … 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.”

County voters in 2014 approved a charter that, among other changes, expanded the leadership board to five members. Benton, Clifford and Rice lost their jobs after the Department of Environmental Services was eliminated and had its duties folded into other departments. County Manager Mark McCauley was fired by the county council. And Madore and Mielke were defeated in subsequent elections.

Along the way, the county paid $250,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by another employee over unfair practices in the Benton hiring. It also paid a fine of $40,000 after failing to turn over documents for the Benton lawsuit.

The stench of the affair continued to linger until last week, and it should serve to inform future oversight of Clark County government. The county cannot afford any more Don Bentons, David Madores, Tom Mielkes or Benton et al v Clark County lawsuits. It’s too costly.

Voters took a stand to improve local government with the 2014 approval of the charter, which passed with 53 percent of the vote. By expanding the governing board to five members and adding powers for a county manager who answers to the council, the charter reduces the likelihood of a coalition abusing its power at the expense of taxpayers.

Yet the experience reinforces the need for an informed public to guard against leadership willing to act with impropriety. The lack of integrity in Benton’s hiring created a stain that impugned Clark County’s reputation throughout the state.

The county council is facing several daunting tasks. Shepherding the county through COVID-19 recovery, acting as the lead agency to combat homelessness and dealing with a rapidly growing population are essential to improving the livability of our communities and developing a robust economy.

The distractions of the Benton saga have hovered above county leaders and residents for eight years. Last week’s settlement signals that it is time to move forward and focus on existing problems rather than self-inflicted wounds.

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