Port of Kennewick to pay $60,000 to former employee to avoid lawsuit

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJune 29, 2014 

The Port of Kennewick is paying $60,000 to a former accounting administrative assistant to settle discrimination claims.

Port officials say Augustine Gonzales was already talking about leaving the port when he alleged he was discriminated against because he is Hispanic.

Gonzales, who started working for the port as an intern about six years ago, claimed he experienced derogatory remarks and discrimination from the beginning of his time with the port, according to a June 4 letter from his Seattle attorney.

Lucinda Luke, the port's attorney, says the port "vigorously denies" the allegations.

Some discriminatory comments were made to Gonzales in the fall, and port officials addressed the problem. Gonzales told officials then that he felt the issues had been resolved. In one instance, he said he participated in the joking and instigated the comment, Luke wrote in a June 19 letter.

Gonzales claimed he was not satisfied with how that incident was resolved, according to a June 4 letter.

Gonzales claimed that after he objected, another port employee started micromanaging him earlier this year and he was "inexplicably placed on a performance improvement plan," according to the letter. He says he was asked to resign after port officials failed to convince him to quit.

"Mr. Gonzales' job performance deficiencies have been noticed since early in his full-time tenure at the port," Luke wrote.

After his former supervisor retired last year, port staff noticed how many errors Gonzales, who did payroll and data input, was making, Luke wrote in the letter.

Tim Arntzen, the port's executive director, said his supervisors had hoped to coach Gonzales to decrease the frequency of errors.

The port had no intent of firing him and had discussed creating a performance improvement plan, Luke said. Port officials and Gonzales already were discussing creating a separation agreement since he wanted to leave the port before he made claims of discrimination.

Gonzales had told his manager and port staff that he was looking for another job and was interested in starting his own business, Luke wrote in the letter.

Though Arntzen said he felt comfortable about taking the disagreement to a trial, he said the cost and time involved weren't worth it. It could have been two years before a trial actually occurred.

"We believe it's more prudent to reach a settlement," Arntzen said.

Arntzen said the parting also was amicable. It's important to do right by employees, he said.

Port of Kennewick commissioners recently gave Arntzen the authority to settle with Gonzales. The settlement agreement was finalized about a week ago. His last day of work was June 20.

-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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