UPDATE: 1 Kennewick port official accepts reprimand, 2nd vows to fight. Total cost will top $100K

A pair of Port of Kennewick commissioners on Tuesday denied mistreating the port’s CEO, but split on taking responsibility for the actions outlined in a private investigator’s report.

Commissioners Don Barnes and Tom Moak also at the meeting changed the process for evaluating their top staff member, deciding they will do it themselves instead of delegating his review to a committee as they have the past two years.

Moak apologized for yelling at CEO Tim Arntzen during a February executive session and said he would accept his punishment.

At that time, the three-member board was meeting behind closed doors to discuss a pending private sale near Vista Field for a $20 million medical center for the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.

Moak, who is seeking re-election this year, accepted the sanctions, including a public reprimand, during Tuesday afternoon’s contentious meeting.

Port of Kennewick Commissioner Tom Moak

Agreeing to the sanctions means he will voluntary undergo training on policies and procedures, participate in team-building exercises and have his reprimand printed in an ad in the Tri-City Herald.

But Commissioner Don Barnes denied the investigator’s more serious findings.

The investigator found Barnes violated port rules by independently contacting a contractor and the state auditor’s office, and creating a hostile work environment when he “jokingly” threatened to fire the CEO.

“I look forward to the day when I can tell my side of the story in public,” Barnes said.

Instead of accepting the recommended sanctions, Barnes requested a hearing before a neutral third party. That person will most likely be a retired judge.

If the sanctions stand, Barnes too will be required to undergo training, including team building, and to have the reprimand published in the Herald.

Port of Kennewick Commissioner Don Barnes

The port already paid $52,000 for the investigation by Tara Parker, an investigator with the Seattle law firm of Ogden, Murphy Wallace.

The port said the cost of the independent hearing will likely cost at least another $52,000. The figure doesn’t include the time port staff or its contracted attorney spent on the issue, said port attorney Lucinda Luke.

Anonymous complaint

Parker was brought in after the port received a four-page complaint in March, alleging misconduct by the two commissioners regarding the farm workers clinic land purchase.

Parker dismissed several complaints but substantiated two against Barnes and one against Moak.

Tuesday’s session was the first public opportunity for Barnes and Moak to respond to the investigation. Both said they believe they acted properly to protect port interests and should not be penalized.

Port Kennewick sign 1.jpg
The port district promotes job growth through development projects such as Vista Field and its wine-oriented development near the cable bridge. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Moak said it was appropriate to intervene in the farm workers’ clinic deal because the site is so integral to the port’s plans to redevelop the 103-acre former Vista Field airport into a high-end urban village in the heart of Kennewick.

He said he was satisfied when he learned more about the project. While he did not believe he acted outrageously toward Arntzen, he said he apologized after the incident.

He apologized again Tuesday.

“I accept the sanctions. I think it’s important to move on,” he said.

$20M clinic raises questions

The property at the center of the dust-up borders Vista Field but is not part of the port-owned site.

The port sold it to investor Floyd Ivy in 2004 for $544,500 in a deal included a buyback clause.

The port learned of the clinic deal when it was asked to release the buyback clause so the sale could proceed.

Barnes and Moak saw that as an opportunity to investigate if the site should be integrated into their project.

The port, however, lacked the money to buy the land at its current market price and staff considered their demands for information and a review a waste of time.

The commission relented and voted to release its buyback rights on March 12 at a meeting attended by representatives from the clinic and its supporters.

The $1.73 million land sale to Yakima Valley Farm Workers recorded in Benton County on April 11, according to county assessor records.

While Parker’s investigation failed to substantiate many of the claims against Barnes and Moak, she concluded the evidence showed Barnes violated port rules twice and Moak violated them once:

The port’s third commissioner, Skip Novakovich, was not included in the complaint or investigation.

The elected commissioners set policy and oversees the CEO of the public port district that promotes job growth through development projects such as Vista Field and its wine-oriented development near the cable bridge.

CEO performance review

In other business Tuesday, Barnes and Moak voted to change how Arntzen is reviewed.

Arntzen’s regularly scheduled performance review.

The pair refused a regularly scheduled request to appoint a commissioner to serve alongside the port’s chief financial officer and attorney on the performance review committee. By policy, the committee is supposed to meet by Sept. 15.

Instead of appointing Novakovich to that role, Moak and Barnes voted to change who does Arntzen’s review.

All three elected bosses -- Barnes, Moak and Novakovich -- will do his review.

Barnes called it a “subtle” change that was not motivated by the complaint about Arntzen’s treatment.

“I don’t think this represents a significant change,” he said.

Novakovich disagreed.

“I think it’s stacking the deck against our CEO,” he said.

The vote was 2-1.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.