2 Port of Kennewick commissioners made a bad situation worse | Editorial

Yakima nonprofit $20 million clinic site in Vista Field

Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic will purchase five acres at North Kellogg Street and West Rio Grande Street from Jerry Ivy Jr. to build a $20 million primary care clinic.
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Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic will purchase five acres at North Kellogg Street and West Rio Grande Street from Jerry Ivy Jr. to build a $20 million primary care clinic.

No matter how they frame it, the two Port of Kennewick commissioners admonished last week for mistreating port CEO Tim Arntzen appeared spiteful when they decided to take over his performance review instead of allowing a committee to handle it as usual.

At the same meeting in which a private investigative report rebuking Commissioner Don Barnes and Commissioner Tom Moak was discussed, the two commissioners voted to conduct Arntzen’s job evaluation themselves.

The timing makes the decision appear vindictive, and supports perceptions that Barnes and Moak have not been conducting themselves appropriately.

Commissioner Skip Novakovich was not included in the investigation and voted against changing the review process for Arntzen, saying it is “stacking the deck against our CEO.”

That’s certainly what it looks like — especially in light of the recent controversy swirling around the Port of Kennewick.

Port Kennewick sign 1.jpg
The Port of Kennewick headquarters building at 350 Clover Island Drive in Kennewick. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The agency received an anonymous four-page complaint in March that alleged misconduct by Barnes and Moak, and how they mistreated Arntzen.

Tempers apparently flared over a specific land deal. The property is near the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, and the port sold it to an investor in 2004 that included a buy-back clause.

When Barnes and Moak heard the land was going to be sold for $1.7 million and used for a $20 million Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, they wanted to investigate whether they could get the land back and incorporate it into their development plans at Vista Field.

The port didn’t have the money to make that happen, and commissioners eventually released the port’s buyback rights.

But the discussion over the issue was heated.

In a Feb. 19 closed-door session, Moak reportedly yelled at Arntzen, “I blame you,” and threatened to fire him. This was a violation of port rules requiring civil and respectful treatment of others, according to the report.

Moak apologized this week and said he would accept the investigator’s punishment, which means he will have to undergo training on policies and procedures, participate in teambuilding exercises and have his reprimand printed in an ad in the Tri-City Herald.

Moak is running for office this year, and at least he has taken responsibility for his behavior.

Barnes was elected to a six-year seat in 2015. He was found to have violated port rules when he called a design consultant working on the Vista Field project, and when he asked the State Auditor’s Office about port business instead of going through the port director.

The investigator also found that Barnes created a hostile work environment when he “jokingly” threatened to fire Arntzen.

Barnes is fighting his recommended sanctions and has requested an independent hearing with a neutral third party, which port officials estimate will cost at least $50,000.

The port already has spent $52,000 for the investigation by a lawyer from Seattle. That means over $100,000 of taxpayer money will be wasted on disagreements, which should be remedied with civility.

While we don’t know what will happen in Barnes’ hearing, the decision to take over Arntzen’s performance review is telling.

Over the last two years, a committee made up of one of the three port commissioners, the port’s chief financial officer and attorney have conducted Arntzen’s evaluations.

Port staff had suggested Novakovich be on the review committee this year, but Moak and Barnes decided all three commissioners would conduct the review.

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

Under the circumstances, that’s tough to believe.