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GOP senator will head department reviewing his political friends' proposals

Sen. Don Benton will run Clark County's environmental services office, where many of his donors need to get permits. His biggest environmental priority this year: Resisting a 20-year-old U.N. plan.
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Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver discusses bills scheduled for committee review with staffer Alison Mendiola.

Sen. Don Benton will run Clark County's environmental services office, where many of his donors need to get permits. His biggest environmental priority this year: Resisting a 20-year-old U.N. plan.

Sen. Don Benton's new job as the chief environmental official of Clark County will have him regulate several industries that contributed plenty of money to his 2012 legislative campaign.

Also, Benton, R-Vancouver, appears to have no qualifications for the job as the county's director of environmental services, The Columbian newspaper of Vancouver reported. Benton accepted the post Thursday, a press release said. The pay is $96,936 to $136,956 per year.

Entering the 2013 legislative session, Benton had been a consultant for television station sales staffs. His other background is in insurance.

He is also deputy leader of the Senate Republican Caucus in Olympia, having been in the Senate since 1996. 

He did not return messages requesting comment for this story that were left Thursday with staff members.

Benton's chief environmental bill in the current 2013 session called for prohibiting Washington and its local governments from restricting property rights due to policies traced back to the United Nation's  "Agenda 21." Created in 1992, Agenda 21 is a 300-page document that addresses sustainable-development efforts. The United States signed the Agenda 21 agreement, which is non-binding. Despite its non-binding status, Benton said in a February interview that Agenda 21's policies have seeped into state and local government regulations, such as requiring stream setbacks for construction. The bill died in committee more than two months ago.

Benton is also a leading opponent of the Columbia River Crossing bridge project in Vancouver, and his new county job will give him reviewing power over the Clark County permits needed to complete the project.

Benton raised $482,787 through 1,017 donations for his 2012 Senate election campaign, spending $475,051, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission records. It was the second highest dollar amount of donations for a 2012 legislative race — exceeded only by efforts of Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who raised almost $500,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her seat. Haugen's loss and Benton's extremely narrow win were key factors in the Republicans' controlling role of the Washington Senate in the current session.

Most legislative candidates' campaign war chests were in the neighborhood of  $100,000 in donations, PDC records showed.

Many donors to Benton's 2012 senate campaign came from commercial construction interests; real-estate developers; mobile home parks; manufactured home builders; mortgage lenders; Realtors; and forest groups, including Weyerhaeuser. There were also donations from TransAlta which owns the coal power plant in Chehalis; fuel transportation firms; energy companies; railroads, and the Association of Washington Business which opposes many pro-environment bills in the Legislature. .

Many of these donors gave $900 donations, and a few gave $900 twice, PDC records showed. The maximum single allowable donation amount for individuals, political action committees and corporations is $1,000

Meanwhile, Benton has been a leading opponent of replacing the Vancouver-Portland bridge with a new $3.5 billion Interstate 5 bridge dubbed the "Columbia River Crossing." Clark County's legislative delegation to Olympia is almost evenly split on the issue with Democrats supporting the new bridge and Republicans wanting to keep the old one. 

The main pro-new-bridge arguments are that the current bridge is very old and is a major link along a major West Coast transportation corridor. The anti-new-bridge arguments are that it would be too low for some boat traffic and Vancouver residents don't want to pay for light rail that would come with the new bridge.

The feds will pay for most of the new bridge with Oregon and Washington each supposed to pony up $450 million. Oregon has allocated it share. Benton is a leader in the Republican-oriented Washington Senate stopping this state's appropriation. In April, Benton was cocky in lambasting Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's unsuccessful efforts to try to get the Senate Republicans to change their minds.

After meeting with Inslee and LaHood, Benton issued a statement saying: "it wasn’t even a fair fight. I’d say we schooled the transportation secretary in a way he couldn’t possibly have expected. ... I guess the governor thought he could strong-arm the Senate Majority Coalition into rolling over by bringing the D.C. folks in to give us the same ‘this bridge or no bridge’ lecture he’s been delivering. Instead, the transportation secretary had his hat handed to him."

Even if the Washington Senate approves the $450 million, the Columbia River Crossing project still needs to get a land use permit, shoreline permit and a flood plain permit from the Clark County Community Development Department, said Mandy Putney, the state's spokeswoman for the Columbia River Crossing project. The county's Environmental Services Department will review the Community Development Department's work permits, she said. Environmental Services is the department that Benton will now head.

Benton's appointment as director of Clark County's environmental services department came as a surprise on Wednesday at a routine commissioners' meeting that was essentially attended only by some county staffers and a newspaper reporter from The Columbian.

Two Republican Clark County commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke appointed Benton with Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart decrying “political cronyism” during the meeting, The Columbian said. The paper reported Stuart stormed out after the voting, yelling "bullshit" as he left the room.

PDC records showed that Madore donated $800 twice to Benton's 2012 senate campaign, and Donna Madore also donated $800 twice. Mielke donated $100 to Benton.

The Columbian reported that the job description posted on the county's Web site said an applicant for the post should have "at least eight years of responsible management experience directing complex environmental services functions and services, or related operations. ... (plus)  a thorough knowledge of environmental services and developing and improving funding mechanisms and sources.”

The county administrator did not interview Benton for the position. The other hiring procedures for hiring county department chiefs were also skipped, the newspaper reported.

The Columbian quoted Mielke and Madore as saying they wanted an environmental services director who would be friendly toward businesses. “I need someone who shares the vision of championing jobs. ... We are in a jobs crisis," Madore told The Columbian. And Mielke and Madore wanted the three-month-old vacancy filled prior to the summer construction season. The county government did not formally seek candidates, but had a job description posted on its Web site.

The county has unsuccessfully litigated against the state on a few environmental matters, The Columbian reported.

Benton reportedly sent an email to Madore a week ago to say he was available for the job. The email first became public at Wednesday's meeting.

While Benton could not be reached for comment Thursday, he did issue a press release. "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 said in the news release.

Benton is not the only legislator who will be simultaneously holding down a county government job. Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, is the new Thurston County auditor. Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is a Mason County commissioner.

Benton has had a checkered political career with the Washington Republican Party ousting him as state chairman in 2001 after he left $1.2 million in donations unspent during the 2000 campaigns, which included Democrat Maria Cantwell's narrow unseating of Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. Party leaders also criticized him for putting $365,000 in escrow to move the party headquarters from Tukwila to an Olympia building, without telling party leaders.

  

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GOP senator will head department reviewing his political friends' proposals

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John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8