Republican state Sen. Don Benton was picked by two GOP Clark County commissioners for a well-paying government job Wednesday, in a controversial move that Democrats say smacks of cronyism.
The commissioners selected Benton, of Vancouver, without interviewing any other candidates to be their new director of environmental services.
The job pays anywhere from $96,936 to $136,956 a year. Benton earns $42,106 annually as a state senator.
The selection by Republican Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke came over the objection of Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart on Wednesday in a tumultuous meeting covered by The Columbian.
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“That stinks of political cronyism, stinks of political cronyism, to not even interview people but to offer up a candidate who just so happens to be a political ally,” Stuart told the other commissioners.
Mielke and Madore, in an audio recording of the meeting posted on the county website, defended the selection, arguing Benton is highly qualified for the job and they needed someone to head up the office quickly.
Mielke contributed $320 to Benton’s 2012 campaign. Madore contributed $1,700.
Stuart pointed out that Benton, the Senate deputy Republican leader, would need to spend time in Olympia and that the Legislature would go into special session May 13.
“To just try to appoint somebody who is a political ally to a position and say maybe he can even do it part time …,” he said.
Stuart ultimately left the meeting saying he did not want to participate in the decision. “This is disgusting,” he said. “I’m done for the day.”
Democrats point out Benton has been a leading critic of a proposed new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, which would include light rail.
Benton helped galvanize opposition to a bridge proposal in the GOP-led majority in the Senate. Madore and Mielke are also opposed to the project.
Madore, in a phone interview Thursday, said the environmental-services position has been open for months and needed to be filled quickly in time for the building season.
He noted the county will likely eliminate all fees, including development fees and building-permit fees, soon for property zoned for business and that a new director is needed quickly to handle the anticipated flood of applications.
“When it comes to cronyism, that’s operating under a false premise,” Madore said. “The false premise is that he’s not qualified. He absolutely is qualified. I don’t know anyone who is better qualified.”
Benton’s legislative biography says he’s an advertising and marketing expert, and runs a consulting firm called the Benton Group. The firm is being “phased out,” he said.
The financial-disclosure form he must file as an elected official indicates the firm did consulting for television stations and law firms.
A job description for the environmental-services position says it “is responsible for strategically protecting and enhancing the county’s natural environment by maximizing the efficiency and transparency of government processes.”
Qualifications for the job include “at least 8 years of responsible management experience directing complex environmental-services functions and services, or related operations … All combinations of education, experience, and training that demonstrate the ability to perform the work will be considered.”
Benton, in an interview, said he sent Madore an email recently about the job opening essentially saying “I don’t know what you guys are going to do with it, but I’ve looked at the requirements and I’m well qualified for it and meet all the qualifications and I would like to be considered.”
He said he also attached a résumé and “that was it. I figured eventually they’d post it, I’d have to do a formal application. I just wanted to let them know that I was interested.”
When asked if he’d preferred they had interviewed others to avoid any appearance of special favors, Benton said: “What you have is that when people know that someone is qualified and know that’s who they want, then they have to weigh whether or not it is in the best interest of the organization to wait and go through a lengthy process or get somebody on board right away and start making things happen.”
He added, “I would have been happy either way. That’s their decision, not mine.”
Regarding claims of cronyism, Benton called it “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
He said he plans to keep his job as a state senator while working for Clark County.
“I have no intention of giving up my Senate seat. The Legislature is a citizen Legislature,” he said, “Many, many members of the Legislature are in other jobs and many of those are government jobs somewhere. The jobs are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes they are mutually enhancing depending on what you’re doing.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org