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Citing 'toxic' atmosphere, Benton County Commissioners halt committee

People at a meeting.
Benton County's YouTube Channel
A still from a video feed of Benton County's Nov. 28, 2023 meeting.

Benton County Commissioners are citing alleged threats and bullying in their decision to pause a committee that’s meant to give input on the county’s waste management strategies. 

Alleged incidents surrounding the county’s Disposal Site Advisory Committee include a threat by a community member involving a firearm against staff during October’s meeting, though no charges were filed. 

Testimony given Tuesday by Darren Nichols, the community development director, also mentioned demeaning and misleading behavior by committee members.

Rachel McEneny, the Benton County Administrator, told KLCC that now is the time to work on making the committee safe and productive again.

“Putting this on pause, looking at our bylaws, and really looking at how we can continue moving forward,” said McEneny. “And making sure there's a larger group of folks that are represented in Benton County to talk about these issues. And right now we don't have that.” 

McEneny added that there’s a culture of fear that permeates the current committee, and not all voices are being heard.

In addressing the Benton County Board’s action, the chair of the Disposal Site Advisory Committee, Ken Eklund, called the threat an unacceptable “open mic moment," but said the county is also ducking talk on the Coffin Butte Landfill

Eklund said this has all been consistent with what he called efforts by the commissioners to stifle discussion over the matter, and added that the board has cancelled several meetings and restricted agendas, to avoid discussing a recent EPA report on methane leaksat the site. 

“I think that’s why this crisis of bullying and intimidation and kinda those sorts of things has been manufactured,” Eklund told KLCC. “From my point of view, it’s just a smokescreen essentially, as an excuse, to just shut us down entirely.” 

Eklund said Benton County receives money from Republic Services which operates the landfill, so it’s essential to keep his committee active for checks and balances.

The committee is likely to stay paused until early next year, when Eklund’s and four other sitting members’ terms are up.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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