Richland port to hire an independent investigator into staff complaint

The Port of Benton will hire an independent investigator to review a staff complaint.

The port’s elected commission voted 3-0 during a special meeting Monday morning.

The nature of the complaint remains a mystery. The Tri-City Herald requested a summary or copy of the allegation.

But David Billetdeaux, the port’s attorney, said the complaint won’t be released until the investigation is done.

He said the document is initially exempt from public release because it is related to a current investigation, unfair practice or possible violations of federal, state or local law.

The port hasn’t yet identified what investigator will look into the complaint or how much it could cost.

A recent investigation for the Port of Kennewick into allegations of misconduct by two its elected port commissioners is expected to cost more than $100,000.

Billetdeaux said he was contacting firms Monday to assess who would be available to conduct the investigation.

Lots of meetings

He plans to discuss potential costs and contracts with the commission at its next regular meeting, 8:30 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the port’s Richland offices, 3250 Port of Benton Blvd.

On Tuesday, the commission has several meetings scheduled to review and interview four candidates for its executive director position.

The commission meets at 8:30 a.m. Then, a public luncheon with the four finalists is from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., where people can ask questions.

The commission could make its final choice after the lunch.

Tuesday’s events are at the port’s offices.

Investigations can be costly

Billetdeaux confirmed the complaint was filed by a member of the port’s 22-person staff.

While it has procedures to resolve internal grievances, it brings in outside investigators if the internal situation can’t be resolved.

Outside investigations can be costly.

The Port of Kennewick investigation was triggered by a complaint by port Commissioner Skip Novakovich, who said Commissioners Tom Moak and Don Barnes mistreated the port’s CEO, Tim Arntzen.

The Kennewick port hired a Seattle law firm to review the allegations. The investigator concluded three of the allegations had merit and warranted sanctions.

Moak, who is running for re-election, accepted the sanctions. Barnes appealed to a neutral third party. And that appeal is ongoing.

Port of Benton director

The Port of Benton’s long-time executive director, Scott Keller, abruptly retired in early June 2019.

Keller signed a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits him from commenting on what happened.

Diahann Howard, one of his former deputies, is filling in as interim executive director. She also is a candidate for the permanent job.

The other candidates are Stuart Dezember, the port’s director of finance and auditor, Brian Dansel with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Wade Farris, an Air Force veteran and experienced city administrator.

The Port of Benton is responsible for business development and job creation in western Benton County, covering the cities of Richland, Benton City and Prosser and unincorporated areas south to the Columbia River.

It owns nearly $90 million in assets, including municipal airports in Richland and Prosser, the Walter Clore Wine Center and wine industry facilities in Prosser.

It also has barge and rail facilities, including the former Hanford rail through Richland, several business parks in north Richland, property in Benton City and Crow Butte Park west of Paterson.

Port properties support 3,290 jobs with an annual payroll of about $200 million.

A three-person port commission oversees the port, with day-to-day operations managed by the executive director.

Its annual budget is $12 million to $15 million.

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.