Hostilities linger at Port of Kennewick over Farm Workers Clinic land sale

A dustup over a 2019 land sale next to the Vista Field redevelopment site continues to roil the Port of Kennewick.

At a December hearing, Commissioner Don Barnes appealed sanctions levied after an investigator concluded he violated port rules through his efforts to halt a private sale of five acres to Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.

Barnes eventually withdrew his objections, and the deal went through. The nonprofit is building a $20 million clinic there now.

The two-hour appeal hearing, held by telephone, included insults and multiple allegations of misconduct by Barnes and by the port’s chief executive, Tim Arntzen.

A ruling is due in mid-December, after deadline for this publication. If the sanctions are upheld, Barnes will be required to undergo teambuilding training and to have the reprimand published in the Tri-City Herald.

Barnes and fellow commissioner Tom Moak both were sanctioned for their conduct as the port considered if it should exercise a buyback clause for the property at North Kellogg Street and West Rio Grande Street in early 2019.

Had they done so, the port and not Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic would own the property and the clinic would not be under construction.

The port held the buyback clause after it sold the land to a local investor, Jerry Ivy Jr. in 2004. Ivy held the undeveloped property for 15 years before reaching a $1.8 million deal with Yakima Valley Farm Workers.

Before the deal could close, the port had to sign off on the buyback clause.

Barnes opposed the waiver, arguing the port should consider reacquiring the land for inclusion the neighboring Vista Field redevelopment. Port staff disagreed, leading to heated meetings and complaints.

The port hired an outside investigator to review the matter after receiving an anonymous complaint, which Commissioner Skip Novakovich later acknowledged he wrote. The investigation led to the sanctions against Barnes and Moak. The matter is expected to cost more than $100,000 to resolve.

Moak apologized for yelling at Arntzen during an executive session and accepted the sanctions. He won re-election in 2019, winning more than 57% of the vote over challenger V.J. Meadows.

But Barnes, who faces re-election in 2021, exercised his right to appeal, leading to the contentious hearing.

Attorneys for both sides spent two hours lobbing mutual insults.

Michael King, representing the port, said Barnes subverted open government when he contacted a consultant working on the Vista Field project seeking support. He also contacted the Washington State Auditor’s Office to ask about the rules for tracking buyback clauses.

There is a reason for the port’s rules requiring commissioners to address issues through staff. It ensures the public’s business is not carried out in private, King said.

“It’s about open government. Commissioner Barnes lost track. He was angry about the Ivy property. Getting angry is not a right,” he said.

But Joel Comfort, representing Barnes, said it was his client’s job as an elected official to question management. There should have been a robust discussion about the “Ivy” property and its potential role in Vista Field, the 103-acre redevelopment project led by the port.

Forcing Barnes to submit questions to staff suggests commissioners serve at the pleasure of the staff instead of the other way around, Comfort said.

“These are elected officials. They get to get information,” he said.

“Just because the CEO (chief executive officer) says, ‘You need to go through me,’ doesn’t mean that’s the case. I see a controlling port CEO that doesn’t like to be scrutinized or criticized,” he added.

Judge Paris Kallas heard the appeal and was expected to issue a decision around Dec. 11.

Editor’s note (1/3/2020): To read the judge’s ruling, go to: https://www.tricitiesbusinessnews.com/2021/01/judge-clears-commissioner/

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