Port of Benton chooses new director after rocky transition

Diahann Howard has been named the Port of Benton’s permanent executive director.

Howard, a longtime port employee, had been serving as interim executive director since May, when Scott Keller retired after more than 30 years with the port.

Diahann Howard

Howard, one of four finalists for the top job, officially accepted the job offer from the port’s elected commissioners at their Dec. 11 meeting.

Contract details, including salary, job description and termination procedures, were finalized in a closed-door session. 

The contract will be signed at a Dec. 17 special meeting. Howard will be paid $155,000 annually.

Howard said she looks forward to serving the port, which promotes economic development in western Benton County, including Richland, Prosser and Benton City.

Top priorities

Her top priorities include staff training, catching up on pavement maintenance, roof work and executing the port’s strategic plan. 

She also is working to fill two key positions — airports director and facilities director, both vacated in the tumultuous months after Keller left.

As executive director, Howard will manage day-to-day operations of the public port district, which has an annual budget of about $10 million. The port is supported by rent payments from tenants, property taxes and government grants.

It owns and operates numerous business parks, as well as the Richland and Prosser municipal airports and Crow Butte Park near Paterson.

Howard earned a degree in international affairs from Eastern Washington University and held posts with the city of Richland and the Tri-Cities Enterprise Association before joining the port in 2006.

She served as director of development and governmental affairs prior to Keller’s unexpected retirement.

Her appointment to the role caps a rocky transition after Keller left following an argument with Commissioner Roy Keck over who should succeed him.

The argument was recounted in an investigation into misconduct allegations filed by some port employees in October.

Howard wants to look forward

Howard called the conflict “unfortunate,” and said she’s eager to put the episode in the past. The coming year is full of opportunities to expand the port’s mission to promote development and job creation and to serve the communities and taxpayers in its service area, she said.

The port hired Yakima attorney Sarah Wixson to review complaints that the port commission violated the Washington Open Public Meetings Act when they traveled together and that Howard and Keck mistreated employees and violated port policies.

The report was released Nov. 15, 10 days after Keck won a narrow victory over challenger Bill O’Neil in the Nov. 5 general election.

The investigation traced the conflict within the port to May, when Keck and Keller argued over a succession plan. Keck favored Howard as a successor, while Keller backed another employee, whose name is blacked out in the 16-page version of the report released to the public.

The three other candidates for the top job were Stuart Dezember, the port’s director of finance and audits; Wade Farris, an Air Force veteran and former city manager of Gig Harbor and Othello; and Brian Dansel, Northwest regional director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Keller’s departure did little to calm tensions.

As interim executive director, Howard moved quickly to implement changes she said were required by the job description she had been given.

Over the course of three months, the port lost five employees.

In early August, some complained to Commissioner Jane Hagarty that Howard was exceeding the authority of a temporary leader. 

Hagarty interviewed most of the port’s staff. 

Howard followed up with her own interviews.

On Sept. 9, Howard led an all-staff meeting where she told employees it was time to stop grieving the departure of a well-liked boss. 

After the meeting, staff received a PowerPoint titled “What’s Trust Got To Do With It,” which was compiled by Janice Corbin of Sound Employment Solutions LLC, a port consultant. Staff found some of the statements in the presentation jarring. 

“If an individual isn’t able to re-engage in the professional relationship and establish basic trust, the employer may consider performance improvement and/or discipline,” it said.

An unidentified group of employees formally complained in a letter dated Oct. 17. 

Investigation findings

The investigation concluded commissioners did not violate the meetings act when they traveled together. Washington law requires elected bodies to meet in public whenever a majority of members get together. 

For the port, that means any time two of the three commissioners are together, it could constitute a meeting. The investigation noted passively receiving information while traveling did not constitute a meeting. 

Other complaints had merit, it said. The investigation found:

• Howard hired a human resources consultant without a contract. A contract was later completed.

• Keck disclosed statements made in a closed-door session to staff who were not present for the private session.

• Howard’s actions around the Sept. 9 staff meeting were designed to stifle further complaints and constituted retaliation.

• Keck retaliated against staff in connection with his re-election campaign against challenger O’Neil, who was backed by the former executive director. Keck accused staff of hacking his phone and of openly backing his rival at the port’s Wings and Wheels event held in August at the Richland Airport. According to the investigation, Keck said employees loyal to Keller had benefited from a “good old boys” atmosphere and were undermining Howard as the port moved to a more “merit-based” one.

• The search for a new executive director was tainted by perceptions of political allegiances.

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