I always get a kick out of situations where a popular narrative doesn’t match what actually took place. You know, it’s the old “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’’ dynamic.
Earlier this week, several news outlets — the first being E & E News — reported that former Washington State Sen. Don Benton was chosen along with State Sen. Doug Ericksen to participate in the Trump administration’s political “beachhead team’’ to overhaul the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the Seattle Times, Benton will be senior White House adviser supervising the EPA transition.
After serving 20 years in the state Senate, Benton did not seek re-election last year, during which he served as President Trump’s Washington state campaign manager. Benton also served as the head of Clark County’s Department of Environmental Services (DES) from 2013 until last year when County Manager Mark McCauley made the decision to eliminate the department. Benton has since filed a $2 million lawsuit against Clark County over the elimination of his position.
The idea of abolishing the DES was first raised in the fall of 2015 by Mike Dalesandro, a city of Battle Ground councilmember who was campaigning for the position of county chair. Dalesandro championed the idea as a potential cost savings of $700,000 to the county.
Putting Benton out of work in Clark County was popular among many area residents, some of which were bitter because of claims of “cronyism’’ from the appointment of Benton to the position in 2013. Then-Commissioner David Madore brought Benton’s name forward and fellow Commissioner Tom Mielke added his support for the nomination. Then-Commissioner Steve Stuart opposed the nomination of Benton, who was later appointed by then-County Administrator Bill Barron.
Other area residents couldn’t accept the fact that Benton was drawing paychecks both from his position as director of the DES and his elected office of state senator. Still others just didn’t like Benton personally.
So, the narrative among Benton’s critics was that he wasn’t qualified to be the director of the DES, never should have been given the job in the first place, and he shouldn’t be able to “double-dip’’ with two salaries out of the pockets of taxpayers.
When Dalesandro raised the issue of eliminating the DES, I was working as editor of The Reflector Newspaper. I dutifully interviewed the candidate and wrote a story about his idea, as did the other local news organizations. However, I also took the time to ask the question, “how is the Department of Environmental Services’’ performing. It seemed to be a relevant question to ask under the circumstances. To this day, I haven’t seen any other news organization that bothered to ask that question at that time.
In September of 2015, I took that question to McCauley, the very person who less than a year later made the decision to eliminate the DES and put Benton out of work. McCauley told me at the time, “if you’re looking at the metrics, I think the department is performing very well. If you look at things like the quantities of recycled volumes and some of the many activities that they perform, such as the Recycled Arts Festival, objectively the metrics are very good.’’
My report also included “substantial evidence that the department has been successful in operating with less and less of the taxpayers’ money. For example, county budget documents show that the DES 2015-16 budget is just over $29 million, which is almost $8 million less than it was during the previous cycle.’’
My report also included Benton’s own account of a lawsuit against the county that he “inherited,’’ which he said could have cost the county as much as $40 million to settle. Benton negotiated that settlement down to $3.6 million. Benton’s assertion about the lawsuit savings was supported by multiple other county sources.
If you’re one of those who took pleasure in Benton losing his Clark County job, you’re likely one of those chastising his appointment to Trump’s transition team for the EPA. That’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion about Benton, you can even dislike him personally if you desire. But, as McCauley told me in the fall of 2015, all the evidence points to the fact that Benton served the county well in his performance as the director of the DES and is deserving of this week’s appointment by the Trump administration.