Thoughts on the DES Dissolution

by lewwaters
Logo of Clark County

Logo of Clark County

Much to the delight of some and consternation of others, this past week saw the abrupt dissolution of the Clark County Department of Environmental Services.

What made it so pleasurable to some is of course, much hated Sen. Don Benton (R 17) was effectively fired from the position he was hired to lead the department and that caused so much controversy, fueled by a near lynch mob mentality led by the local newspaper, the Lazy C.

The firestorm lit off back then has simmered and burned ever since from the left as well as editors and writers employed by the Lazy C, even though none has ever supplied any actual evidence of managerial incompetence, just allegations of not being qualified and of course, the ongoing, decades long hate fest against Benton.

At one time the Department must have been seen as very necessary as it was just a few years ago it was formed when two-thirds of the County Commission consisted of commissioners the Lazy C and the left still gush all over.

The Department of Environmental Services was brought into being back in January 2010 when the County Council consisted of Marc Boldt, Steve Stuart and Tom Mielke, the lone conservative leaning commissioner. The claim was, “Clark County combined seven existing county environmental programs to form the new Department of Environmental Services (DES). This consolidation of services increases the county’s efficiency and effectiveness through greater coordination and collaboration, ultimately strengthening the protection and enhancement Clark County’s natural environment” from the DES.

Of course there is that little matter of the County losing the suit over noncompliance with state stormwater regulations as well as claims Benton negotiated settlement of the claim down considerably and kept the fines to be paid remaining within the county.

Forgotten in all of that is it was the refusal of the former commissioners to comply with state regulations, led by environmentalist then Commissioner Stuart, which led to the suit in the first place.

Some allege Benton had little to do with negotiating the fine and I will leave that to others to debate.

Suffice it to say that the DES seems to have been a much needed Department, until former temporary County Commissioner Ed Barnes floated the notion of dissolving the department in November 2014. Barnes denied it had anything to do with his personal dislike of Benton and was a suggestion to increase efficiency.

Mike Dalesandro, when a candidate for County Council chair made the same suggestion of dissolving the department saying then, “If you look back at why this department was created, it was created during a time when the county was going through some stormwater issues and challenges and there was this whole battle going on. That was one of the primary reasons this department was created. Those issues have been resolved. This is not a new discussion.’’

“By dissolving the DES and rolling those duties into our existing organizational structure, we can save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually while continuing to provide the same services. The county has operated this way before and we can certainly do it again.”

The now floated notion of the dissolution of the DES coming out of the blue and completely unexpected seems odd given efforts over the last year and a half in suggestions.

I also can’t honestly say there were no personal considerations or dislikes involved either, but other than circumstantial evidence and creative “connecting the dots,” how could anybody ever actually prove such a claim?

I will also add I find it highly irregular that the four people losing their jobs, Don Benton, Susan Rice, Chris Clifford and Nick Cimmiyotti being escorted out by Sheriff’s Deputies and that such an act fuels claims of a personal vendetta.

Acting County Manager, Mark McCauley claims, “We have budget pressures. My goal is to make the county as efficient as it can be. I think this reorganization will.

He also said the decision is “strictly to do with overhead” and “has nothing to do with performance, nothing to do with personalities.”

Needless to say, embattled County Councilor Madore disagrees.

Also rather odd since Madore claims to lead the struggle to streamline county government into a more efficient and less costly system.

I find it also curious since Madore has made efforts to distance himself from the hiring of Benton to head the DES, even though he defended the hiring in October 2013.

Prior to the dissolution of the DES, Benton did file a “Whistleblower” complaint against Mark McCauley and the County that remains pending.

Little doubt that feeds into allegations of McCauley’s reasons for dissolving the Department being “bald-faced lies” and “revenge.”

Cutting through all of the smoke & mirrors coming from both sides now reveals a small fact many are ignoring.

Back when Benton was hired, the County Commissioners had every legal right to hire Benton as they did, even admitted to by former Lazy C writer, Stephanie Rice, buried deep within a May 2, 2013 article, “While the county typically publicly advertises job openings, commissioners, or other elected county officials, do have discretion to bypass the regular process and appoint department heads.”

Likewise, since we are now under a Home Rule Charter, McCauley has the authority under Article 3, Section 3.2, B. Powers and Duties in the charter to “Determine the organizational structure of and assign duties to administrative departments which are not specifically assigned by this charter or ordinance.”

In other words, even though he is still just the “acting” County Manager, not selected as permanent just yet, he has full authority to act just as he did, not unlike when Don Benton was hired.

Controversy and baseless allegations aside, Mark McCauley acted within his authority and other than rattle gums and stir up more contentions, little can be done, notwithstanding final determination of the before mentioned Whistleblower complaint.

Maybe we all would be better served if all of the backbiting and throwing of darts at each other ceased and elected officials learned how to put their differences aside and worked on behalf of the people of Clark County.

But I have little hope of that happening as fringe elements from across the spectrum seem to live to stir up contentions.

As for Don Benton, once all of the dust settles from this, I have no doubt he will land on his feet. He has shown he is quite resilient.

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5 Comments to “Thoughts on the DES Dissolution”

  1. I’m so happy that Acting County Manager Mark McCauley fired four people “to reduce expenses and boost efficiencies.” Perhaps the RINOs on the County Council will see fit to put the 2% property tax reduction proposal back on the table. (Fat chance.) I can’t say if Benton (and his employees) were doing a good or bad job, but from reports I’ve read, it seems as if they were doing well for the County and the taxpayers.

    The fact that the firing was done so abruptly, including the fired employees (each) being escorted to their office(s) to remove a “few personal items” and then being escorted off the property is both insulting and egregious. I have never previously seen such measures taken unless the individuals had been involved in serious ethical (or even criminal) violations — and I have seen such treatment in private industry, such as when a higher level manager had been found embezzling…

    Indeed, I was “downsized” from a position I held with a contractor at a Federal Agency during the 1990s. After President Bill Clinton announced “the era of big government is over” there were studies made (under the supervision of VP Al Gore) and eventually the job I held was “unfunded.” I was not given moments to gather a few personal items and I was not escorted from the property. Instead, I was given three weeks notice. I was able to bring my subordinates (in 3 subsections) up to speed with the management issues that they’d have to deal with, I was given a “farewell luncheon”, and I was asked to sign a contingency contract that would allow the Agency to “call me back” as an independent contractor, should further need of my services be required. I did not receive any “severance” beyond the accumulated benefits due along with COBRA health insurance coverage. I felt that I was treated in a “classy” manner, under the circumstances. I mention this only to illustrate how unusual and nasty the “firing” of the Department of Environmental Services personnel was handled. Indeed, it seems to me that the firing was handled in a most unprofessional method — and if I were involved in the decision to make Acting County Manager McCauley permanent, I would STRONGLY urge the council to seek a better qualified candidate. (Mr. Don Benton might be one…)

    I also can’t imagine that this took place without the “unofficial” knowledge of the controlling majority of the County Council, and I figure that they are unprofessional as well. We really have a “minor league” team running our county under the new charter.

  2. The escorting of all 4 by deputies troubles me as I am aware of no reason for it. Still, I am equally disturbed seeing Anna Miller, Madore’s former executive assistant and former Chair of the CCGOP referring to our deuties as “goons” on Madore’s facebook newspaper.

    While I have never been “escorted” out of a building upon termination, I can’t say that I was given any “classy” farewells either.

    Still, when Benton was hired, many of us defended it a legal and within the authority of the Commission.

    We can’t now cry foul when it is also within the authority of the County Manager, unless someone uncovers some concrete evidence of impropriety.

    Bottom line, the Charter No people did a piss poor job campaigning against it and so did Madore and his people campaigning for him to be chair, even with the sour grapes write-in effort.

    Elections have consequences and all of us have to live with the results.

  3. Any time government is reduced I’ll lead the cheers, but I wonder how long this will last? Don’t be surprised if within 12 months the same coterie that decided we don’t need DES discover that we in fact do need it…once Don Benton is put out to pasture. Of course The Columbian will ignore the contradiction.

  4. Lew there is a reason to feel uncomfortable by the “escorting off the property” process here. It isn’t standard. Another thing not standard and I’d question if lawful is that in normal procedural tact and under federal laws there is this little thing now known as the “warn”. The laws state that an employer must provide an official warn letter to any employee who is expected to be laid off or terminated due to downsizing, green management techniques of streamlining, etc.

    These are there so that people can withstand the loss of wages. Such a warn was issued at Metso in March of 2009. Most the staff received 60 days. My husband being “last man out” got 6 months. I was grateful since I was all set to buy him a new truck! No way could we have handled $700 budget increase under the unemployment insurance payments. These things are important so I too am not comfortable with the process while I totally applaud the downsizing of government.

    One more thought here, there is no way to roll back the taxes by 2% nor is there any way the county can continue to squeeze the budget. The projections are grim now based on the squeeze they already did. The county is set to lose income under the annexation plans. I met with the sheriff today and he shared the pending retirement roles coming forward. We need to address these issues at the mental health level, the homeless level and the human trafficking if we are going to stay a good community for families. That takes tax revenue.

  5. The amateurish way the “layoff” was handled, potentially opens the County to a “wrongful termination” lawsuit (though Washington law is less favorable to such suits than California). The county manager may have been within his authority … and the Councilor for the district I’m in claims she “was briefed on the reorganization during my one on one with Mr. McCauley but did not have the details as to the specifics of how the employees would vacate or leave the facility.”

    I realize that the current year’s budget has been settled, warts and all. However, I’m also aware that “my” Councilor seems to think she represents the employees of the county rather than the voters and taxpayers, based on earlier correspondence I had with her.

    Fact is, that government at all levels wastes a considerable amount of money. There are many “needs” but often the question goes unasked: “Is this (particular need) one that must be met by the county?” and there is often a failure to consider options to having county staff perform the function. I don’t doubt that there are many functions that could be contracted out to private industry, who would compete for the opportunity and would likely cost less than those services provided by county staff.

    All too often, elected representatives (at all levels) think that “government is a force for good.” That, of course, is a myth. Government is highly destructive of individual freedoms and generally causes more harm than good. At best, the regulations, rules, and taxes, make it difficult for private businesses to operate … and rules, etc., are often “captured” by various businesses and used to keep competitors out of a market. (e.g. taxi permits, used to keep Uber and Lyft from competing — and providing better services and lower costs.)

    I’m afraid that our current “majority” on the County Council do not have the best interests of those paying the bills on their minds.

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