Benton was chosen by two Republican commissioners, David Madore and Tom Mielke, over the objection of Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart, who accused them of “political cronyism,” The Columbian reported Thursday.
The Republicans said they bypassed typical hiring practices because they needed to fill the position quickly and it was unlikely a better candidate could be found. Madore said Benton could help the county become friendlier to job creators.
The position has been vacant since February, when previous director Kevin Gray announced his retirement. He was paid $118,000 a year. The pay for the position could range from $96,936 to $136,956, according to the job description on the county website.
Stuart left the commissioners’ meeting in anger.
“This is disgusting. It really is. I’m done for the day. I am so sick. You’ve got to honor the organization; you’ve got to 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,” Stuart said.
“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,” he said.
Both Madore and Mielke said the hiring was not cronyism.
Madore said the reason for moving quickly on the hiring was to avoid missing a building season where the role would be critical to the county.
In March, Madore recommended altering the job listing for environmental services director from focusing solely on environmentalism to one that “champions practical application of state law in granting development permits.”
Madore said Benton met the new criteria.
“I need someone who shares the vision of championing jobs,” Madore said after the meeting. “We are in a jobs crisis.”
In a written statement, Benton said he accepted the job offer Thursday and will start Monday.
“I look forward to protecting and enhancing our precious natural resources here in Clark County while at the same time streamlining our permitting process to expedite job creation for our neighbors,” he wrote.
Benton said he will not have to step down from the Senate, noting that many other lawmakers hold outside work.
“I expect to wear two ‘hats’ as well as they do, and as I always have since first elected,” he said.
Historically, the department’s goal is to manage the county’s natural resources through programs focusing on water resource protection, recycling, environmental education and noxious weed control.
Benton, 57, has been in the Legislature since 1994 and is a former head of the state Republican Party.
Last year, he won his latest re-election to the state Senate by 74 votes.
Benton has a bachelor’s degree in management and communications from Concordia University. Outside of politics, he worked in management for Farmers Insurance Group before starting a sales and marketing consulting company.
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