Benton commission race sign flap grows

WHITSTRAN — Benton County Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. is the prime suspect for whoever ordered the removal of two of his opponent's large campaign signs in Whitstran.

Benitz claims someone called him concerned that Shon Small's 4-foot by 8-foot signs might be in the county's right of way, so he notified the county road department. He says he merely passed along a citizen concern that the signs could pose a public safety issue if someone hit one of them.

Benitz said he didn't tell a county employee to yank the signs, but said he suggested someone should look into it. Benitz said Monday that he couldn't recall the name of the citizen who contacted him about the signs, and said he had no memory of who the property owner is.

But Benitz is not telling the whole story, claims Scott Johnson, an attorney representing Small, who is running for commission seat No. 2 against Benitz.

"According to employees of the Benton County Road Department, Commissioner Benitz instructed them to remove Mr. Small's signs. Mr. Benitz himself ordered county employees to take the signs down," Johnson wrote in a letter to Benitz and county Prosecutor Andy Miller.

Johnson added: "Mr. Benitz told the employees that the landowners had not given permission for the signs to be on their property and that the signs were in the county right of way."

Johnson called Benitz's involvement "appalling ... outrageous and likely criminal," and suggested Benitz abused his elected position in having his opponents' signs removed.

Johnson said Small had permission of the property owners, John and Agnes Baker of 100302 Old Inland Empire Highway, to place the signs.

He also said Small contacted the Bakers after the signs were removed and confirmed that they had not spoken with Benitz about any concerns regarding the signs.

Small said Monday that his signs are back in place, but he offered no other comment.

Johnson's letter, however, accused Benitz of violating state laws related to using county employees, equipment and facilities to run his campaign.

"This is just an allegation," said Benitz, adding that he disputes any suggestion he specifically directed a county employee to remove any sign. He said he has not and will not respond to Johnson's letter.

Miller did not return calls from the Herald and Johnson said he has not replied to his letter asking for an investigation.

Steven Becken, public works manager, said he knew nothing about the situation until after the signs were removed.

"It was a mistake. They were not in the county right of way. We made the foreman take the signs back to the landowner," Becken said.

-- John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com