Port of Kennewick commissioners Tom Moak and Don Barnes had very different reactions to an investigator’s report that said they violated port rules.
At a special commission meeting Tuesday, Moak accepted a public reprimand and sanctions that could force him to pay as much as $10,000 for training and to advertise the sanctions in the Tri-City Herald.
Barnes revealed he’s hired an attorney to fight the findings.
Moak accepted the punishment, but said he believed the sanctions were overly harsh.
“If that’s the way we’re going to play the game, that’s escalating the issues, not de-escalating,” he said.
That said, Moak said he looks forward to moving forward with the port’s various economic development projects.
“I accept that my conduct needs to be better,” he said.
The commission voted 2-1 to impose sanctions on Moak. Barnes cast the no vote.
Barnes previously requested a hearing before a neutral third party.
Tuesday, he rejected the port’s recommended neutral party, saying he had not had a chance to review the person’s qualifications.
The commission voted Tuesday to shelve the matter until its next meeting in September.
“It is pretty presumptuous that I would just agree with the person selected,” he said.
Barnes has retained Joel Comfort of Miller, Mertens & Comfort PLLC in Kennewick to represent him.
Comfort sent a letter to the port and media outlining procedural issues and requesting the hourly rates of potential candidates to hear the case.
Comfort also asked the port to release a clean copy of the complaint to reveal the identity of the person who submitted it.
Lucinda Luke, the port’s attorney, declined, saying it is standard procedure to protect the confidentiality of those lodging allegations of misconduct. To do otherwise would have a chilling effect.
Luke said the port spent $52,000 on the investigation and expects to spend another $75,000 on the hearing. Comfort, the attorney, called the figure unrealistic.
Commissioners under fire
The two commissioners came under fire earlier this month when the port made public the results of the investigation into allegations outlined in a four-page complaint received in March.
The misconduct charges stem from the two commissioners’ alleged conduct earlier this year as they contemplated intervening in a private land sale.
Lower Yakima Valley Farm Workers had a contract to purchase five acres once owned by the port near the Vista Field runway. It plans to construct a $20 million clinic.
Moak and Barnes wondered if the port should integrate the site into its own plans to transform the 103-acre former airfield into a walkable urban village. Site development started this spring.
The commission backed off and the land sale closed.
Investigator Tara Parker, of the Seattle law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace Attorneys, concluded Moak violated port policies on civility when he yelled “It’s your fault” at CEO Tim Arntzen during a private meeting in February.
She concluded Barnes violated port policies when he threatened to fire Arntzen and when he independently contacted the Vista Field consultant, as well as when he posed a question to the Washington state Auditor’s Office.
Port policies required him to channel questions and inquiries through the CEO.
Barnes said he’s concerned that the sanctions being imposed under policies adopted this year set a dangerous precedent. Two commissioners can impose harsh penalties and costs on a third commissioner, he said.
Moak is running for re-election in November against challenger V.J. Meadows.